Is the word titulus a diminutive, or does the -ulus do something else? Do we know where it comes from?

L&S mentions that the ti- is related to τίνω and τιμάω, but that does not help me much. I would appreciate any clarification on where titulus comes and what the different parts bring to the meaning. I assume it is not "small Titus"…


It looks like the etymology of titulus is unclear. The Lewis and Short suggestion that it is related to τίνω seems a bit hard to accept (unless titulus was borrowed at some point from some Greek form), as Wiktionary indicates that the initial consonant of τίνω is thought to have come from a PIE labiovelar *kʷ. The change of *kʷ to /t/ before /i/ is specific to certain dialects of Greek; we wouldn't see it in a native Latin word (compare Latin quis vs. Attic Greek τίς).


Wiktionary says "Most likely from Etruscan", citing Ostler, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin (2007), p. 43.

The form at least seems to be consistent with an Etruscan origin, since the phonemes /t/, /i/, /u/ and /l/ all existed in Etruscan. But the suggestion that titulus is Etruscan seems to be based on rather slim evidence. Ostler describes his Appendix II ("Etruscan Borrowings in Latin") as a "liberal list, supplementing the list of clearly attested borrowings on the assumption that early words that have no Italic etymology are likely to be Etruscan, especially if they have recognizable Etruscan word endings (-eus, -enna, -erna, -īna, -issa, -ō, -ulus, -urnum)", and notes that "hardly any of these words can be identified in Etruscan texts" (p. 323).

Ostler cites Ernout 1930 as a source that describes supposedly characteristic features of "Etruscan Latin", such as the list of endings that Ostler gives (Ad Infinitum, p. 334). I have found some later literature that critiques some of Ernout's criteria (Giuliano Bonfante, 1985, "Etruscan Words in Latin"), but Bonfante doesn't seem to discuss titulus or any other words ending in -ulus.

-ulus as an Etruscan word ending?

Here are some of the other -ulus words from Ostler's Appendix II:

  • catulus 'puppy', botulus* 'black pudding', mitulus [sic]† 'mussel', situlus 'basket', populus 'people', tutulus 'priest's cap'

I don't see a clear meaning associated with the alleged Etruscan ending -ulus. (Ostler's list also includes words ending in -ula, which I haven't reproduced here.)

*According to Bonfante, borrowings from Etruscan should not be expected to have /b/, or any other voiced plosive. Ostler doesn't seem to have used this criterion when compiling his list.

†The actual form seems to have been mītŭlus, with a long vowel in the first syllable. Lewis and Short indicate that it is in some way from Greek μύτυλος. (A Greek origin doesn't exclude the possibility of Etruscan as an intermediate source of the word.)


There seems to be no obvious candidate for an Indo-European etymon. András Cser points out that CiVCi, with the same consonant before and after the vowel, is an uncharacteristic pattern for the start of a PIE root, and says that according to Walde and Hoffmann (1956 s.v.), the form titulus might be the result of reduplication (p.181, "Aspects of the Phonology and Morphology of Classical Latin", 2016).


The suggestion that luchonacho found of a relationship between titulus and stilus seemed intriguing to me, so I wanted to add some comments about that (without trying to copy luchonacho's answer, or take credit for finding Kennedy's article).

The word stilus actually also seems to have a somewhat unclear/disputed etymology. The suggestion that it is related to titulus seems to rely largely on the phenomenon of so-called "s mobile", which affects Indo-European roots.

But it's not obvious whether stilus is based on an Indo-European root.

  • Wiktionary and Lewis and Short both suggest that stilus is related to Greek στίζω.

  • De Vaan says "it is uncertain whether Latin stilus, stimulus and stīva all belong together, but one might see a root sti- 'sharp object' in them. It has been argued that they contain the core of the root *stig- 'to sting' (see s.v. stinguō), the -g- of which would be a root enlargement; although this is not completely impossible, there are no positive indications in this direction. Another possible cognate might be Av. staēra-, taēra- [m.] 'mountain-top' < *(s)te/oir/lo-, if to stilus. But since the root cannot be determined, this etymology remains gratuitous."

  • Ostler says stilus "has no etymology and has also been proposed as a loan from Etruscan" (p. 43; he cites a source that I unfortunately can't see because page 335 of the book is not available for me on Google Books). Although at first glance, both words coming from Etruscan might seem to support the case for a relationship, I actually think that would make a connection harder to justify. As far as I know, the "s-mobile" phenomenon would not be expected to affect an Etruscan root, and I don't think word-initial partial reduplication is a known feature of the Etruscan language either.

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The fact that the etymology of titulus seems to be unclear, was definitely a held opinion in the past among some classicists. A book from 1889 about loaned words in Latin by Edward Ross Wharton, from the University of Oxford, includes titulus as part of the "un-Greek loan-words" that "seem foreign, though we cannot tell where they came from".

A few years earlier, B.H. Kennedy, another English classicist, published an article titled "On the Derivation of the Latin Word 'Titulus'", where he acknowledges the ignorance regarding its origin (discarding "small Titus"). However, he also advances a new origin, the Latin word stilus. I quote in extenso:

In the course of last year, dipping into Rabelais (for the sake of his old French, not of his matter), I came across the phrase 'tiltre au dessus,' the title above (the heading of the page). How came this l into the word? I asked myself; and it occurred to me forthwith that it came from stilus; and if so, that titulus is a derivative of stilus. The more I have considered this matter, the more strong has become my conviction that this, and none other, is the origin of titulus, - the stilus above the stilus, that which is written above to explain that which stands below in a book. Thence it became a brief description generally, however and wherever written, however and wherever spoken as our dictionaries tell us. [...]

There are two ways in which we may suppose stilus to produce titulus: in both we strike off s which is lost (as in torus, taurus, tego) by so many words. about 100 in number, beginning with s and a second consonant. This leaves tilus; reduplication gives titilus, from which to titulus is only the same step as from minimus to minumus. This seems better than to imagine a deminutive tilulus converted by assimilation (t-t) to titulus. That reduplication has sometimes a diminishing use, appears from such words as cicindela, cincinnus.

At the end of the article, there are two comments criticising Kennedy's theory (one by Edward Ross Wharton, mentioned above).

PS: was the original word titulus or titulum? Recent debate here.

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Sumelic has answered this question wonderfully, but I wanted to add a lovely bit of folk etymology I came across.

Títan heitir sól, en þaðan af er minkat þat nafn, er títúlus er á Látínu. Títull, kveðum ver, þat er sem lítil sól sé, því at svá sem sól lýsir, þar er áðr var myrkt, þá lýsir svá títull bók, ef fyrir er ritinn…

The Sun is called Titan, and the diminutive of this name is titulus in Latin. So we say the titulus is like a little sun, for just as the sun illuminates things that were dark, the titulus (title) illuminates a book, when it is written at the beginning…

This is from the First Grammatical Treatise, written around the 12th century in Iceland. And while it's not a good authority on actual etymology, it does show what educated grammarians thought about it in the Middle Ages.

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