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Camera – Podictionary Word of the Day

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Today we have digital cameras and film cameras and video cameras.

Yet when a judge asks people at a trial to discuss something in camera the meaning is totally different from discussing something on camera.

As any politician knows, on camera means whatever you say is going to be made public, but to a judge in camera means “in private,” a discussion not in public as would take place in the court room.  What the judge is suggesting is that the participants go back into his or her office to talk off the record.

How can these two opposing meetings of camera fit together?

According to the OED camera came into English in 1708.

In Latin camera meant room, and usually a room with a vaulted ceiling.

The Romans got this word from the Greeks to whom kamara meant anything with an arched top.

This Latin root explains why a judge uses the expression in camera to mean “in private” but not why the rest of us use a camera to take pictures.

cameraAbout twenty years after the evidence shows that \ English speakers had begun referring to rooms as cameras, a man with—in this context—the very fortunate name of Mr. Ephraim Chambers published Cyclopædia; or, an universal dictionary of arts and sciences. This work contained our first evidence the use of a camera to create images.

Here Mr. Ephraim Chambers was abbreviating two words camera obscura which is Latin for “darkened room.”

The technique he was describing is one where light is allowed through a small aperture into a darkened chamber and to shine on the opposite wall.

Just as in cameras today—and in fact in our eyeballs—this revealed a reverse image on the opposite wall. In the days before the kind of cameras we know, people would use such darkened rooms to trace an accurate sketch on the wall based on the projected image.


Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.

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  1. [...] Wednesday’s word origin was for microphone Thursday’s etymology, posted at OUPblog was for camera and Friday’s word root was for the word [...]

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