vellum

Today brought the news that the opening of the British parliament is being set back by the time required for the ink to dry on the official copy of the Queen’s speech. And with that comes the disappointment of Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper that lookups for vellum have not spiked.

Not that the Queen’s speech is calligraphed on vellum. No, it’s done on an archival paper called goatskin, although it’s not made of goat skin. Well, fine. Onionskin isn’t made of onions either, and, for that matter, vellum is these days not often made of calf skin.

Why should it be? Ah, well. The name is not quite as pellucid as vellum is. It has a flavour of historical importance and gravitas, and of fillum – sorry, I mean film – but is nearly as factitious as Velma, Selma, and Thelma (all three names literary inventions, as far as can be seen). Its historical origin has been masked in the process of making it seem more historic.

Vellum was originally made of calf skin, yes: a parchment made of membrane cured and scraped and further prepared for receiving ink and sealing with a signet or binding in a volume. Latin for ‘calf’ is vitulus, and ‘of calf’ or ‘from calf’ is vitulinum (in the neuter). From vitulus came, scraped and polished by time, Old French veel (whence modern French veau and modern English veal), and from vitulinum came velin (whence modern French vélin), which – by some velleity of dissimulation – shifted the final n back to m in English to make it sound more Latin (compare venom from venin and pilgrim from pelegrinus). So now that parchment-type material called vellum is often not made from animal skin at all, the name has gained a fake classical look that masks its real classical origin. It has been treated to make it not what it simply is but what better serves our desires and displays our impressions. Let that soak in.

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