One famous tourist sight right in the centre of Oxford is the Radcliffe Camera. Of course, the Radcliffe Camera isn’t a photography machine but a large 18th century building that is part of the Oxford University library. The origin of camera in the sense of a structure is a lot clearer than why camera now mostly refers to a photo-taking device.

The old sense that we don’t hear very much literally means ‘vaulted building’. It comes, like the French chambre and the more common English chamber, from Latin camera meaning ‘vaulted room’ and ultimately from Ancient Greek kamara.

Meanwhile, various clever people were working on the precursor to photography, using a pinhole device and a darkened room. This clever device needed a clever word and Latin’s always good for that; they put together the two words camera and obscura to make camera obscura, literally a dark room. The term’s first use is attributed to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604.

When photography kicked off in the 1840s, camera obscura was clipped, to refer to the new picture-taking devices. So essentially, when you’re taking a few snapshots, you’re actually using a ‘room’.


Happy Birthday Word Stories!

Happy Birthday Word Stories, you are one year old! But how old is one? Because in terms of etymology, one is actually a lot older than one. I mean, to be pedantic, it’s really at least 6,000.

The word one in English goes back to the 13th century and the days when Old English was still around. Its ancestor was the Proto-Germanic *ainaz, which is why one looks pretty similar to Dutch een and German ein. From there, we can go back even further to Proto-Indo-European, which is thought to have been spoken some 6,000 years ago, and the root *oi-no, meaning ‘one, unique’. This root also became oinos in Greek and unus in Latin and from Latin came the Spanish uno and French un. So that explains why so many European languages have some kind of ‘un’ sound to represent one.

In fact, our ‘won’ pronunciation is a bit of a black sheep in the family. One was originally pronounced the way it still is in only. Our change in pronunciation has made the origin of only opaque, but when you know about the sound change, it’s obvious that only is really one-ly, as in ‘uniquely’.

The now standard ‘won’ pronunciation started in the South East of England in the 14th century and became the norm by the 18th century. We can deduce this because in the mid-16th century William Tyndale, a Gloucester man, worked on the first English versions of Bible texts to be translated directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, which were also the first to be mass-produced by the printing press, and he spelled one as ‘won’.

The use of one as the posh person’s pronoun is unrelated. Latin used homo, ‘man’, which became on in French. Presumably, on became one in English by analogy with the existing word.

Admittedly, Word Stories is actually a bit older than one now since the first post was published on June 16 and I’ve been too busy to realise. Still, if you fancy a flashback, check out the very first post: dictionary.


If I’ve learnt anything in the last couple of weeks it’s that working a nine-to-five-thirty job doing writey typey things is not conducive to frequent blogging. That being said, I have had time to muse on a couple of interesting words here and there, including the word muse.

First of all, you might think that artistic inspiration would be linked to being absorbed in thought but actually the noun muse and the verb to muse are completely different, unrelated words, which just happen to be homonyms (words which are spelt the same but have different meanings).

Muse the noun came into English in the late 14th century from Latin via Old French. The original word was the Greek Mousa, which meant ‘the Muse’ as well as ‘music, song’. According to Greek legend, the nine Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne and were each responsible for a different area of the arts and sciences.

The noun can be traced back even further to the PIE root *men- which meant ‘to think, remember’, which is similar in meaning to the modern verb to muse, although this is purely by coincidence. It is from this muse that we got the words museum, originally a ‘shrine for the Muses’; mosaic, which was ‘work of the Muses’; and music, ‘pertaining to the Muses’.

The verb to muse, on the other hand, means ‘to reflect, to be absorbed in thought’. It came into English at roughly the same time as the noun, in the 14th century, and through the same source language: French. The French word, muser, meant ‘to ponder, to dream’ and also ‘to loiter, to waste time’ but the medieval Latin word it came from, musum, meant ‘snout’ and relates to the modern English word muzzle. So what’s the connection? It could either be because a person who is musing is standing with their nose in the air or because they are sniffing about, like a dog that’s lost the scent. Since both words arrived in the language in the same period, it’s also possible that the noun had an influence on the meaning of the verb.

Now, there are two important words that come from to muse: amuse and bemuse. The a- prefix in amuse means ‘to cause’, which, in the late 15th century, lead to ‘to cause to muse, to divert’ and the primary meaning was ‘to deceive, to cheat’ well until the 18th century. From this, it became ‘to divert from serious business’ and then later ‘to entertain’. It is actually bemuse which has retained more of the original meaning of amuse: the be- prefix can equally mean ‘to cause’ as well as ‘thoroughly’, so someone who is bemused is utterly confused.