Carbuncle a gem of a word

I struggled with the nine-letter word puzzle in the Sydney Morning Herald a few days ago (13 October 2009) to find, after rather too much time, the anagram’s solution was CARBUNCLE. I was disappointed for not recognising this delightful word which, twenty-five years before (in 1984) spearheaded Prince Charles’ attack on the designs of modern British architects and in particular the design for the extension to the National Gallery, when he used it to say:

What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.

It caused much controversy and promoted lively debate about architectural design and planning. His views were not accepted by most architects but carbuncle became a popular and mainstream descriptor for ugly buildings. I was living in London several years later and I heard it used often.

A carbuncle (to which Prince Charles was comparing the extension of the National Gallery) is a red and swollen, bacterial infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue that usually has several openings through which pus is discharged (making it different to a boil that has only one).

But carbuncle has another much more attractive use; my old Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the name of various precious stones of red or fiery colour; anciently of sapphires, spinels or rubies, and garnets; and more recently in lapidary work for garnets that have been cut and polished a certain way.

So how did these two, so very different, things come to have the same name? The Latin scholars will know straight away: carbuncle comes from carbunculus, which literally translates as a little coal. Hence the red gemstones and red, swollen sores both appear as burning little coals.