Camera

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’.

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Paparazzi

A few weeks ago, Word Stories looked at the interesting case of the usual suspects and how the origin of the phrase can be pinpointed to a very precise origin: the film Casablanca. Although being able to identify such an exact source is rare – the best we can do usually is to suppose that a word, say, derived from a certain foreign language in a certain century – it’s not exceptional. One film which gave English not just a catchphrase or an expression but a singular word is Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and that word is paparazzi.

Just by looking at the word you can guess it is of Italian origin and if you know anything about Italian plural marking you’ll also see that paparazzi is the plural of the singular paparazzo.

In La Dolce Vita, Paparazzo is the name of a character, a photographer who goes to great lengths to take snaps of American stars.

Paparazzo as a surname is common in Italy, particularly Calabria, but there are a couple of theories about why Fellini chose it.

It could have been borrowed from a travel book titled By the Ionian Sea, by George Gissing, in which appears an Italian hotel owner called Coriolano Paparazzo.  On the other hand, paparazzo, in the Abruzzi dialect, means ‘clam’ which perhaps alludes to the opening and closing of a camera lens. What’s more, the –azzo suffix has negative connotations in Italian.

Whatever the reasoning behind naming the character, something about the word stuck so there was obviously a need for it in our lexicon. Fellini himself said it suggests ‘a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging’. In fact, the film was released in 1960 and just one year later it was being used in the sense we recognise today:

Kroscenko…is a paparazzo, one of a ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point-blank range.

Selfie

Every year, various budding new words battle it out to be celebrated as the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’. Only one lucky word will make the cut and this time the winner was announced to be the well-deserving selfie. Considering our tech-savvy lifestyles and passion for taking quick snaps and sharing them with ever more popular social media sites like Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, it comes as no surprise that selfie should be the champion neologism.

The definition penned by the OED describes selfie as:

“a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”

In order to qualify for nomination, the word need not have been conceived within the last year but it must have become prominent within that time and it also has to demonstrate the ‘inventiveness’ of English speakers in keeping up with social changes. Selfie certainly fits the bill: although the first example comes from 2002, according to the OED, usage increased by a phenomenal 17,000% in the last year.

Both selfy and selfie are found but the latter is generally more widespread. As Judy Pearsall, the OED‘s editorial director, explained to the Guardian, “[t]he use of the diminutive -ie suffix is notable, as it helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing”. It is also suspected that the linguistic craze originated in Australia, partly because the first documented example comes from an Australian online forum, partly because of this suffix variant which is more popular in Oz.

Despite selfie being the ‘it’ word of the moment, its root word self has been around far longer than the English language or even our Germanic ancestors. Linguists suspect that the term derives from Proto-Indo-European, a language that was around some 6,000 years ago, in the form *sel-bho. So even though the selfie might be a slightly narcissistic craze, we are essentially slightly narcissistic creatures since it seems that as much as we like taking photos of ourselves now, we’ve always quite enjoyed talking about ourselves too.

Other nominees that didn’t quite make it include: olinguito, binge-watch, twerk and schmeat. But it’s the past winners that are a really interesting look into how our language and society have changed over the recent years.

2012 – omnishambles

2011 – squeezed middle

2010 – big society

2009 – simples

2008 – credit crunch

2007 – carbon footprint

2006 – bovvered

2005 – sudoku

2004 – chav