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Researching the history of the pencil the German speaking web is full of quotes that attribute to Pliny the mentioning of a stilus plumbeus as the historical and etymological source for the word Bleistift which is "lead pencil" in English.

However, the English speaking web seems to be quite unaware of this origin story and searching through the Historia Naturalis is equally unfruitful.

The word itself is obviously no recent modern invention, but any finds I could come up with were unattributable (example). Even worse, it is my understanding that it is perhaps not classical Latin in origin at all; but a late medieval or early modern word invention. (Cf. U. Stöwer: Woher kommt der „Bleistift“? in: Tätigkeitsbericht 2009, Kollegium des Deutschen Wörterbuchs Arbeitsstelle Göttingen, p 16. stating that the Latin word's earliest find was in a manuscript dated to around 1500?)

Pliny does write about various metals that could be used for drawing lines, like silver (XXXIII. XXXI. 95-xxxii. 99) and lead:

Altera causa pretii maior, quod minimum usus deterit, cum argento, aere, plumbo lineae praeducantur manusque sordescant decidua materia.
(Another more important reason for its value is that it gets extremely little worn by use; whereas, with silver, copper and lead, lines may be drawn, and stuff that comes off them dirties the hand.)
(XXXIII. XIX. 59-62)

Have I overlooked a passage where Pliny does write about a stilus plumbeus or is this a copy and paste meme in a subsection of the internet? If not Pliny, has any ancient author used the word stilus plumbeus or a direct equivalent?

(Translation quoted from H. Rackham, M.A.: "Pliny Natural History. With An English Translation. In Ten Volumes, Volume IX, Llbri XXXIII-XXXV", Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, London, 1961.)

  • I think the paper by Stöwer (linked by you) gives a very good answer. – fdb Mar 9 '18 at 11:31
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The PHI corpus shows only 23 hits for stil- in the works of Pliny. One can pick the ones that actually come from the word stilus and see that the string "plumb" is not contained on any of those linked pages. That is, stilus and plumb- are never anywhere close in Pliny. You can see hits for stilis ferreis and stilo osseo, but lead is absent.

In fact, the corpus shows no hits for stil- close to plumb- for any author. I'm not sure how close is close. For Pliny I checked all appearances of stilus by hand, and I don't want to repeat the exercise for the entire corpus.

Of course the corpus might not cover everything, but there are no hints of stilus plumbeus. However, even though the phrase stilus plumbeus seems to be absent, the idea of stilus plumbeus appears in the very passage you quote. Perhaps this has been misinterpreted at some point.

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    Thx, helpful. It's so strange to read the paleography book from 1912 using this term just en passant. Makes me wonder if "What did the Romans call a stilus plumbeus?" another question. – LangLangC Mar 8 '18 at 22:05
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    @LangLangC That sounds like a good idea for a follow-up question. But first wait a day or two in case someone has more to say on this one. (It's not clear that the Romans would have a word for it in the first place; knowing a phenomenon doesn't imply naming it. But the lack of a name would also constitute an answer, so the question makes sense anyway.) – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 8 '18 at 22:43
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+100

I think Joonas has proved conclusively that neither Pliny nor any other ancient author mentioned a stilus plumbeus but nevertheless, for what it's worth, I also couldn't find anything.

And then I thought, why would they mention it?

A stilus is a sharp, pointed instrument for scratching into wax tablets. This is implicit in its primary meaning, a stake or pale. Stili were placed into moats to impale unwary invaders. A stilus was also called a graphium, from the Greek γράφειν, to scratch, graze, inscribe. Thus we find references to stilus ferreus or stilus osseus, both hard materials (see also Martial, 14.21, where he speaks of the iron graphium). Indeed, here we see just how hard and unforgiving a stilus (or here a graphium) could be:

Caesar Cascae brachium arreptum graphio traiecit ...

Caesar grabbed Casca by the arm and stabbed [it] with his stilus ...

Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars (Julius Caesar), 82

A stilus plumbeus, or stilus made of lead, would be far too soft for the job (both inscribing a wax tablet and stabbing someone!)

Perhaps because of the references to modern-day lead pencils (and the ambiguity of the English "lead pencil"), I did at first think of the stilus as holding the lead, but this was clearly wrong-headed. Apart from anything else, the stilus is specific in its function as a "scratcher" of wax. It was designed to leave indented marks in wax, not traces of a writing material.

If writing with ink, for instance on parchment or papyrus, Romans used a calamus, a reed that drew up ink much like a quill pen. For painting, they used a penicillus, a "little tail", made of bristles.

Nevertheless, lead was used by the Romans but it would seem not for writing but for light lines on parchment or papyrus. Your quotation from Pliny highlights this: "lines drawn with ... lead dirty the hands". Catullus (22.8) too mentions this use; mocking Suffenus' verses all "lined up with lead" (derecta plumbo). It's the very impermanence and/or faintness of the lead that makes it perfect for this job on parchment or papyrus.

A stilus plumbeus seems a sort of oxymoron, then. A stilus was for inscribing wax tablets, its form and function perfectly aligned; lead was used for lightly marking parchment or papyrus.

Which is all to say, I don't think it's surprising to find that stilus plumbeus is unattested in the classical sources.

ADDENDUM:

I’ve been asked, which classical noun do you think is best for "pencil" as in "lead pencil"?

I think it depends on what characteristic of the pencil you want to emphasise.

Penicillus looks like the precursor of our [English] pencil and, although it is strictly speaking a brush, I think that if you want to emphasise the thinness or fineness of a pencil mark, it could work. A skilled artist could draw extremely thin, fine lines with a penicillus, as evidenced in Pliny’s anecdote about the contest between Apelles and Protogenes as to who could draw the finest line - see Pliny, NH, 35.81ff.

If, however, you want to emphasise the quality of the pencil mark – it’s smudgy, powdery quality – then I think we may have to accept that materials like lead, chalk, and charcoal were simply held in the hand and referred to as "lead", “chalk”, etc. This may be why in Catullus (a/a) the lines are drawn simply plumbo, that is to say using the ablative of instrument/means of lead. Similarly, Apelles quickly sketches someone on the wall carbone (with charcoal) (Pliny, NH, 35.89) and Martial reads graffiti on the toilet walls written carbone and creta carmina (with red chalk) (Epigrams, 12.61.9-10). More specific to writing, both Horace and Persius make reference to marks in a list made with both chalk and charcoal, again using just the ablative (Horace, Satires, 2.3.246; and Persius, Satires, 5.108).

So, if I were to say in Latin that "he writes with a pencil", I personally would choose to emphasise the quality of the pencil mark and, therefore, write "he writes with lead / scribit plumbo".

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    Very good points! Which classical noun do you think is best for "pencil" as in "lead pencil"? I agree that stilus is not the right word. Perhaps calamus or penicillus (from which "pencil" seems to come), as they are both supposed to leave matter on the surface rather than scrape some of the surface away. – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 11 '18 at 17:00
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    @JoonasIlmavirta I think it depends on what you want to emphasise. If it's a question of leaving a thin trace of matter then I think penicillus based mainly on the contest between Apelles and Protogenes as to who could draw the finest line - see Pliny, NH, 35.81ff. If however you want to emphasise the type of trace left, its lead-likeness, then I think we may have to accept that materials like lead, chalk, and charcoal were simply held in the hand and referred to as "lead" etc. Hence why in Catullus (a/a) the lines are drawn simply plumbo. Similarly, Apelles quickly sketches someone ... – Penelope Mar 12 '18 at 2:07
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    @JoonasIlmavirta cont'd from above: ... on the wall carbone (Pliny, NH, 35.89) and Martial reads graffiti on the toilet walls written carbone and creta carmina (Epigrams, 12.61.9-10). More specific to writing, both Horace and Persius make reference to marks in a list made with both chalk and charcoal, again just using the ablative (Horace, Satires, 2.3.246; and Persius, Satires, 5.108). – Penelope Mar 12 '18 at 2:13
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    Thank you! If I could only give you another vote up for that explanation... – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 12 '18 at 9:48
  • Let me just add to this that not only parchment and papyrus were lined with lead. Prior to using graphite lead was a very common drawing 'tool', used especially and extensively also in architecture and construction. – LangLangC Mar 17 '18 at 14:09
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The term lead pencil came into use (in Britain, at least) around the start of the seventeenth century. I very much doubt that it was named from any mention in Pliny's Natural History of a stilus plumbeus. Penicillum plumbeum might be more likely, but I can't find that, either.

As opposed to the hard-wearing stilus (for writing on wax : it had a blunt other end for erasing), graphis, -idis f. was a drawing pencil or pen which could leave traces on a board or "membrane". The material used to make the mark is uncertain, but lead is the strong possibility. Pliny's later books (35, 36) describe all manner of things concerning decoration, including drawing and the instruments used but not, as you have found, any stilus plumbeus. Vitruvius (I, I, 3 & 4) mentions the skill needed in handling the graphis and, obviously, from this our "graphite" is derived, but I can find no mention of the material used to make the mark.

Certainly in England, sharpened rods of lead were used for drawing until the discovery of graphite deposits in the sixteenth century, in the Lake District. This graphite was used for making pencils as we now know them. It was substituted for metallic lead, was called "black lead", and this is why the "lead" in a pencil is still so-named. It may well be that the new pencils were exported to Germany, or that something similar happened separately in that country and elsewhere. However it all came about, a German Bleistift is just the same as an English lead pencil, and my guess is that the meanings have very similar — if not identical — origins that are not directly descended from the Romans.

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