New Member
Could someone please explain the meaning of this word “pilulous” and of the quote itself from “Middlemarch”?
“Has anyone ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?”

  • PaulQ

    Senior Member
    English - England
    It is an interesting word...

    OED: (i) Resembling a pill or pills; (ii) very small; (iii) covered in small, pill-shaped markings.

    The word appears to have been coined by George Eliot in 1871 to mean (i) "Resembling a pill or pills;",(i.e. small and spherical)
    1871 ‘G. Eliot’ Middlemarch (1872) I. i. ii. 29 Has any one ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?​

    but has been used since in the 1905 meaning of (ii) very small (i.e. the size of pills.)

    1905 Athenæum 1 July 7/2 Literature is made to descend on them in a gracious rain of pilulous duodecimos. [duodecimos is a size of paper approx. 7 inches high, and 4.5 inches wide.]

    It seems then to have disappeared and reappeared in 1987 in the meaning of (iii) covered in small, pill-shaped markings.

    1987 Antiquaries Jrnl. 67 267 Various amounts of pilulous slag, charcoal, incompletely reacted ore and occasionally fuel-ash slag..cling to this free surface.

    (Red font = my additions.)


    Senior Member
    Has anyone ever revealed the smallness of [my? her? womens?] social circle before marriage?
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    Senior Member
    English - US
    "... pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb ...."
    If you gather the fabric of a cobweb and pinch the mass of it (in stages) between your thumb and forefinger, the result is eventually a tiny bead. What begins as an expanse of material becomes compressed into a small volume. There isn't as much to the cobweb as there first appeared to be.
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    English - Canada
    Eliot is alluding to the fact that in 19th-century England a wife and husband often didn’t spend much time together before being married. She implies that this is a not a good thing. She didn’t think much of the institution of marriage, especially the laws that kept a married woman subordinate to her husband. She lived with a man she called her husband for many years, but they were never formally wed.

    I must have read pilulous in Middlemarch but I haven’t seen or heard it elsewhere.


    Senior Member
    British English (Sussex)
    A cobweb is made up of extensive but very fragile connections. In social terms this means that before marriage it wasn't possible for girls to have made any real and deep connection with anyone of the opposite sex. They had many superficial acquaintances. If you could roll all these superficial contacts together, there was in total nothing of substance (like the cobweb all rolled up into a tiny ball.) It's a striking piece of imagery.

    Edit: as for the term "pilulous", I wouldn't be surprised if it was related to pill in this sense: a small ball of matted fibres that forms on the surface of a fabric through rubbing. A spider's web rolled into a small ball would be more like a small ball of matted fibres than a (medicinal) pill.
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    New Member
    Thank you Paul!
    I still can not grasp the meaning of the quote though.
    Hello friend,
    “Has anyone ever pried into and studied the very truths about the very person that seems to have been known about enough? ( If the answer is yes, then the matrimonial union with this person can hardly not be rescinded.)