Carbuncles: Etymology, Gemology, Pathology, and Mythology
A carbuncle just sounds curious, does it not? The words “car,” “bunk,” and “uncle” ring through, lending perhaps a corny tone to this relic of a word. It can refer to garnets or boils---quite opposite ends of the sensory pleasure spectrum---but this makes sense given its etymological relationship to the word “carbon”: carbuncles are little red coals.
Carbuncles have appeared in the Bible, classic short stories, and role-playing fantasy games. They continue to represent legendary gems in modern culture and skin infections in medical journals. Some of the greatest mileage of the word “carbuncle” in recent history has come from the phrase “monstrous carbuncle,” used to describe a work of modern architecture out of place with its surroundings; it was coined in 1984 by Charles, Prince of Wales, regarding a prospective addition to the National Gallery in London. Perhaps least-known is the role of carbuncle as a color, synonymous with “London brown”: a dark reddish-brownish-grayish hue reminiscent of dried blood.
The Latin carbunculus means “small, live coal” and is related to other forms describing coal and charcoal (carbon-, carbo, carb- and carbonem ). The 13th-century Old French spellings included carbuncle, charbocle, and charboncle, and later became the Middle English carbuncle.
“Fiery jewels” resemble glowing embers, so it is easy to see how the little red coals came to refer to gemstones. Now obsolete, this definition of carbuncles describes any precious or semi-precious red gems of a cabochon (rounded, unfaceted, convex, flat-backed) cut, most often deep-red garnets but also rubies, ruby spinels, and almandines.
Archaic terms for gems were based more on color than mineral content (for example, “sapphire” meant “blue stone” in Greek and likely referred primarily to lapis lazuli), so historical references to valuable stones do not necessarily align with contemporary gemology. There are now considered to be four major “precious” stones: rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds. Rubies are a type of sapphire (composed of the mineral corundum) but when chromium is present, it lends a red or pink color; other sapphires gain their colors from different trace elements. Ruby spinel (magnesium aluminum oxide) is often found near rubies and is called the “mother of rubies.” Almandines can be either spinels or iron aluminum garnets. Garnets form from a family of common silicate minerals and vary in color. There is still some use in modern gemology of the term “carbuncle” to refer to deep-red cabochon almandines.
By the 14th century, these “little red spots” had gained a medical identity with tumors and boils, a definition still in use.
The “carbuncle” entry at Dictionary.com describes this skin condition as “circumscribed” with “suppuration” and “sloughing”; with sophisticated precision and admirable alliteration, this portrays the carbuncle’s cyst-like containment and the presence of pus and dead skin. The abscess or collection of boils can worsen rapidly and may require medical intervention. Carbuncles can be triggered by minor skin irritations, are typically caused by bacteria, are more common in individuals with diabetes or compromised immune systems, and can be accompanied by other symptoms of severe infection.
The carbuncle’s reputation as a glowing jewel has held mythical proportions. The gems are reputed to be dark as blood but appear to burn with fire when held up to the sun and have even been believed to shine in the dark. Gemstone lore ascribes healing and esoteric spiritual properties to stones; the carbuncle is said to govern affairs of the heart and blood and to convey protective strength and virtue.
Most English translations of the Bible have four references to carbuncles, derived from the Latin translation of the Greek term “anthrax.” They are mentioned as gemstones with blessed prestige and appear in Exodus 28:17 and 39:10 as one of the stones in a sacred breastplate, in Isaiah 54:22 as part of a wall, and again in Ezekiel 28:13 as having been present in the Garden of Eden. For a more detailed exposition of these biblical examples, visit:
- Topical Bible - topicalbible.org
"Carbuncle" in the Bible
In Popular Culture
Carbuncles are featured in short stories by two different well-known nineteenth-century authors. In both, the quest for a peerless stone ends with a moral lesson for its seekers:
Carbuncles continue to inspire writers and artists. The carbuncle as a creature surfaced in The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges, first published in 1957. Carbuncle characters---small, cunning, and cute with a ruby stone on their heads---have now appeared in role-playing games, including the Dungeons and Dragons, Final Fantasy, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Puyo Puyo games series:
A film named “Carbuncle” by T. Arthur Cottam won “Best Feature Film” when it premiered at the 2006 Milan Film Festival.
The following blog about carbuncles includes quotes from literature:
For a clunky word with archaic, earthy origins, the carbuncle has garnered an eclectic and eccentric etymological career. From the Bible to medical journals to popular video games, carbuncles continue to intrigue.