Saturday, 28 December 2013

Camera - Room for Development

Probably time for an upgrade
(photo by AJK)


Noun. Late 17th century.
[Latin = vault, arched chamber, from Greek kamara object with arched cover: compare with CHAMBER noun.]

1 In Italy, Spain, etc. a (council or legislative) chamber;
the treasury department of the papal curia. L17

2 An arched or vaulted roof or chamber.
Chiefly in the names of (parts of) buildings. See also IN CAMERA. E18

3 elliptical = CAMERA OBSCURA. M18

4 Any apparatus used for taking photographs or television pictures. M19


an eye that records detailed impressions; a person capable of unusually detailed or detached observation or memory

operating a camera professionally, especially in cinema or television

adjective (PRINTING) (of copy) in a form suitable for photographing or electronic scanning

camera shake
(blurring due to) unintentional movement of the camera during photography or filming

adjective not liking to be photographed or filmed

operating a camera professionally especially in cinema or television

the manner or technique of positioning and using cameras in films, television, etc.

noun (chiefly US, archaic) a person who uses a camera. M19

While on a Romanian language course, I noticed that one word raised more eyebrows than any other: cameră. In Romanian, cameră means 'room', and with the typical linguistic superciliousness common to most native English-speakers, incredulous glances were exchanged among the students with mutterings of "Oh those crazy Romanians!", "How bally confusing!" and "Well by Dickens what do you lot of rotters call an actual camera then?"

Note: stereotypical Britishisms have been added for effect and, in truth, the general response was just "Oh those crazy Romanians!" with a roll of the eyes

However, if I may gallantly jump to the linguistic defence of our prieteni români, it is really they, and not us, who are more correct on this, as camera is Latin for 'vault' or 'arched chamber'. And they're not the only ones to have retained this historical meaning: camera is 'room' in Italian, and in Spanish una cámara is a chamber; even the French chambre, from where we get chamber, comes directly from the Latin camera. So, seeing as camera means 'vault' in Latin, the question really isn't "Why do those crazy Romanians use camera for 'room'?", but "Why do those crazy English-speakers use camera for 'camera'?" And no, clever-clogs, the word didn't have those two meanings in Latin; while I'm no classical scholar, I'm reasonably certain that the Romans didn't have any word for the camera of the snap-snap variety, which brings us to ...

The disposable camera obscura never really took off
(didn't see the light of day, had an image problem, etc, etc)

Why do those crazy English-speakers use the Latin camera for 'camera'?

We get the word camera (the photographic type) from camera obscura (literally 'dark chamber'). A camera obscura is a box or room (yes! Room! Another point for those savvy Romanians) which can project an image of external objects onto a surface. It does so by having a small aperture through which light enters, which is focused on a surface which displays an image that, while upside down, preserves both the colour and perspective of the external scene. Camera obscuras (yes, that is the correct plural) have been used for thousands of years - both the Ancient Chinese and Ancient Greeks had them. If you're wondering why anyone would want to project an image that was just outside the box or room, you have to remember that these were simpler, more innocent (and pre-photographic) times, and all this was jolly entertaining. That, and it was useful for drawing, of course. And looking at the sun. And keeping an eye on those bechlamysed Greek chavs who are hanging around outside your house. As to why we adopted camera for a camera, in reality all photographic cameras are examples of camera obscuras - the difference being that, since the 19th century and with the advent of photography, ways have been developed to preserve the projected image (other than laboriously painting or drawing it). Thus, camera is just a shortened form of camera obscura. Oh, and in case you're still wondering how you say camera in Romanian, it's apartat de fotografiat. The nutters.

Quite possibly the coolest camera ever invented - you can't be a wannabe hipster without one
(photo by Hiroyuki Takeda)
What does camera mean in your language?

Are you camera-shy, snap-happy or developmentally challenged?

Do please get your Nikon and comment Leica boss in the box below.


  1. You should do a post on the etymology of room, because I've no idea where you guys got that from. In Dutch, it's "kamer", so yet another one in the camera family. Why didn't the English stick with chamber? How much cooler is that? What would you rather do: retire to your chambers, or go to your room?

    And as for the apartat de fotografiat, my dialect uses "foto appareil", similar to the French "appareil photo" (because I live close to the French border). So either all of Europe is nuts, or only just the English.

    1. Well, Bibi, I have reserved a Lexicolatrical room for you (although it'll be quite a wait), but I can tell you in advance that 'room' is Germanic and it's related to the Dutch word 'ruim'. Yes, that's right - Dutch! So it's all your fault ... you and those pesky Germans ... nah-nah-na-nah-nah ...

    2. Ahn, that explains. Although I wouldn't link "ruim" to room. "Ruimte", rather. But I can see the German "Raum" shine through. Thanks for making me a bit smarter.

  2. Κάμαρα (cAmara)= room in Greek too. It's kind of old fashioned, though.
    Kαμάρα (camAra)= arch

    The capital letters show which syllable is stressed.

    In Greek we say φωτογραφική μηχανή, (fotografiki mihani), which is very similar to Bibi's foto appareil. So, yeap, it's just the English...

    1. Yeah! Eng-ur-land! Engurland, Engurland, nah nah!

      (in case you're wondering, when English football thugs/fans chant 'England', for some reason they slip in an extra syllable so that it becomes Eng-gur-land ... so that was my impersonation of an English football thug chanting ... for no good reason really ... they just like chanting that if the word 'England' even gets a passing mention)

    2. Oh, and thank you for the Greek words - very interesting : o )

  3. "How bally confusing!"

    Oh, aren't you language students witty.

    1. Oh we're ... the ... umm ... *tries to think of a grammar based pun* ... the conjuga ... umm ... the predi ... uh ...

      Yeah we're really witty.

  4. If the English language were more logical, it wouldn't be the English language :p.

    1. This, Kara, is very true - and if it is ever rendered logical, the quintessential essence of what makes English English will be destroyed.

      (says the native speaker who didn't have to learn it as a second language)

      : o )

  5. Hi, I don't think you got any credit for the caption. One of your best! :) Chlobo

    1. Thank you, Chlobo, though I'm sure I don't know which of my brilliantly witty captions you're referring to ...