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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.

Derby, England: example of an architectural "monstrous carbuncle" in the background. Author: J147
Derby, England: example of an architectural "monstrous carbuncle" in the background. Author: J147 | Source

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.

Live coals in antique stove
Live coals in antique stove | Source

Etymology

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.

Châsse, Limoges, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille: example of cabochon gemstones
Châsse, Limoges, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lille: example of cabochon gemstones | Source

Gemology

“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mineral content (for example, “sapphire” meant “blue stone” in Greek and likely referred primarily to lapis lazuli), so historical references to valuable stones do not necessarily align with contemporary gemology.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.

Munchen, circa 1910: medical illustrations of carbuncle (above) and ulcer (below)
Munchen, circa 1910: medical illustrations of carbuncle (above) and ulcer (below) | Source

Pathology

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.

Mythology

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:

Illustration for "The Adventure of the  Blue Carbuncle"
Illustration for "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" | Source

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:

Final Fantasy Carbuncle
Final Fantasy Carbuncle | Source

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:

Legacy

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.

Comments 23 comments

epigramman profile image

epigramman 3 years ago

Well Mrs. Brown you certainly have a lovely parlour full of surprises (with a nod to Herman's Hermits) and I just love sitting front and centre in your classroom learning from my favorite hub teacher.

I also try to learn a new word or concept or idea everyday and I have certainly found the right place and writer and thinker in someone like you my friend.

For another lady who is very good with words please check out my hub buddy Amy Becherer.

I am sitting here sending you warm wishes and good karma at lake erie time canada 10:19am from Colin and his cats.

Yes I always start my day with light classical music and the rule of thumb is no Led Zeppelin before 12 noon, lol, and yes BACH is wonderful to write to and so is jazz which I love. (and film soundtrack music too) You can tell I am a musicologist, Music influences so much of my writing and my moods.


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO

The title of your hub immediately drew me in, Lurana, as the word 'carbuncle' to me was strictly medical. Your article is genius in your ability to give an intriguing history of this word's beginnings and extensive meanings. History was never so interesting!

Your writing style not only fits the bill professionally and informationally, but as a creative work of art.

I couldn't help but be struck by the illustration of the rabbit in the film, 'Carbuncle', as it brought back memories for me of the film 'Donnie Darko.'

Thank you, Lurana, for an intriguing article that combines your unique writing skills and intellectual talent for 'connecting the dots' in a most fascinating way.


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Amy---Thank you so much for such detailed feedback! I really appreciate your compliments and hearing your reactions. And I definitely see the Donnie Darko connection!


epigramman profile image

epigramman 3 years ago

Yes Lurana I am well aware of George Winston , a Windham Hill artist, and classified as a new age pianist although he can play many different styles. I have all of his albums on vinyl and cd and I too often play him in the morning.

I remember the first time I heard the Autumn album in a book store in New York City and it brought tears to my eyes


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Colin---Oh good! He is wonderful. I love Autumn too.


Mel Carriere profile image

Mel Carriere 3 years ago from San Diego California

Etymology is a fascinating and disgracefully overlooked subject. Thanks for your informative lesson.


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Mel Carriere---I agree about etymology! I have always been interested in it. Thank you for reading and for your comment, I appreciate it very much! :-) ~Lurana


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 3 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

I absolutely love etymology. This is simply wonderful. So glad I stumbled across it. Great Hub. Sharing. Theresa


Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

Marcy Goodfleisch 3 years ago from Planet Earth

What a fascinating hub! I had never heard of the gemstone use for the word carbuncle, so this was hugely interesting. Now I need to find a way to use my newfound knowledge! Trivial Pursuits, anyone?


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Theresa---I love etymology too! I'm so glad that you liked this one; thank you for your positive feedback :-) Lurana


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Marcy---Thank you! I thought this obscure topic was strangely interesting too. :-) Lurana


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 3 years ago from Taos, NM

It is funny, but I have heard this word carbuncle before and I am trying to remember where. I enjoyed reading this hub as I love the etymology of words. It is fascinating the different meanings of this word. I find this a unique and interesting article. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge.


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Hi Suzette, Thank you for visiting this older hub of mine! Carbuncle is one of those odd words that does pop up sometimes....usually in the health context, although the 1980s Sherlock Homes series did "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" and it might be on reruns sometimes.

Thank you for taking the time to read and for your nice comment, I appreciate it very much! :-) ~Lurana


dreamseeker2 3 years ago

Very interesting uses to the word. I knew its meaning to be that of a boil. lol! : ) Voted it up, as it taught me a thing or two. I now have a new wrinkle in my brain. Thanks for letting us know.


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

dreamseeker---Thank you for looking at this older post of mine! I researched it on a whim and quickly became fascinated. What a contrast of definitions! Thanks for reading, and I'm glad I could share some new info with you. ~Lurana


ocfireflies profile image

ocfireflies 3 years ago from North Carolina

How amazing:

"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."

while also

"By the 14th century, these “little red spots” had gained a medical identity with tumors and boils, a definition still in use.

from gemstone bauble to sloughing boil

Very interesting hub! Thanks Lurana!

Best Always,

Kim


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Kim---Thank you for visiting this one! The information was fascinating to me. I'm glad you thought it was interesting too! Have a great weekend, :-) Lurana


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 3 years ago from California

This was a fascinating hub! You are full of surprises!!!


jhamann profile image

jhamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

What an interesting word "carbuncle" and what a great selection for a hub. Thank you for your research and a beautiful and educational hub. Jamie


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Audrey---Thank you very much! It's nice of you to visit my page again.

Much appreciation,

Lurana


MrsBrownsParlour profile image

MrsBrownsParlour 3 years ago from Chicagoland, Illinois Author

Jamie,

Thank you! I thought it was a neat topic. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. You have very interesting research-based hubs yourself!

~Lurana


Never thought carbuncles are different 2 years ago

Carbuncles aren't any red gemstones, they're a different set of stones round and color white and looks like an ember or a live coal in the dark hence the name. (Yes, they glow in the dark. Freaking cool if you ask me.)


Judy 23 months ago

What are Boils?It is a skin sore that is pus filled, inleamfd and painful. Firstly under the skin a nodule is formed that gradually develops into a pus-filled reddish sore that eventually bursts and drains. Symptoms of Boils * Skin on the face, neck, armpit or buttocks develop a pea-size lump filled with pus, that is tender to touch and is red in appearance having a tip or head accompanied by fever occasionally.Causes of Boils * When the oil glands of the hair are infected with bacteria inflammation of the skin begins. * The bacteria can spread to other family members through skin breaks, scratches and cuts. * Poor hygiene, certain industrial chemicals, cortico-steroids, diabetes and suppressed immune system are also other causes.Home remedies for Boils 1. Re-infection can be prevented, by washing the area thoroughly with water and soap. Apply anti-bacterial ointment and cover the boil with a sterile gauze bandage. Change the bandage daily. 2. Ibuprofen, naproxen or aspirin helps to relieve inflammation and pain. 3. Make a hot-wet compress of cotton cloth dipped into hot water and wrung out. For 10minutes gently apply the compress on and off. Repeating this 3 times a day will help to relieve swelling and pain. Finally the boil ruptures and drains. 4. Infected matter will penetrate deeper into the skin when squeezed, so avoid it.How can one prevent Boils 1. If you are prone to boils use antibacterial agent in your bath regularly. Keep, site of the boil, very clean. Don't share your clothing, bedding or towels with anyone to avoid bacterial spread. 2. Raise your body's resistance power to stop the boils from recurring.

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