Camera

It’s not a “peephole.” It’s art.

Dear Word Detective: I was looking at a map of Oxford, England and found a building called the “Radcliffe Camera.” I’d never seen the word “camera” used in context with a building other than perhaps “camera obscura.” It is a library and is circular. It was built in the 1100′s. Why is such a building called a “Camera”? — Gerald Weiland.

Words can be tricky little devils. My parents took me to London when I was a wee lad, promising to show me Piccadilly Circus. I’ll bet they knew the only animals there were pigeons. Note to traffic engineers: please stop trying to introduce the “circus” (aka “roundabout” or “traffic circle”) in the US Midwest. People here don’t get it and aren’t going to. They seem to think it’s some kind of audition for NASCAR. Throw texting into the mix and it’s more like a terrifying audition for American Nitwit.

According to Wikipedia, the Radcliffe Camera was built between 1737 and 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library, named after John Radcliffe, the Royal Physician to William III and Mary II of England. (I said, a while back, that using the phrase “according to Wikipedia” produced in me the anxiety of a man skydiving with a parachute he bought on eBay, but this entry seems solid.) The Camera is said to be the earliest example of a circular library in England, and pictures show an ornate, and indeed perfectly circular, structure. There are two levels to the building, but the central atrium is open from the ground floor to the arched roof, which is where “camera” comes in.

The root of our English word “camera” is the Latin word “camera,” which meant “vaulted room,” which was filtered through Old French and also gave us the word “chamber.” While the earliest use of “chamber” in English was to mean what we today simply call a “room,” “camera” was used for a large room or building, particularly with a high, arched ceiling. Thus the Radcliffe Camera employs the original sense of “camera” in English.

More specific uses of “camera” in the 17th century included “chamber where a legislative or judicial body meets or deliberates.” This use persists only in the legal phrase “in camera,” which originally referred to a private meeting in a judge’s “chambers” (office), but today is used to mean simply “in private, away from public view.”

The 17th century also saw the use of “camera” in the term “camera obscura,” meaning literally “dark room.” It had long been known that light entering a darkened room through a small aperture would cast a faint reversed image of the view outside on the wall of the room, which could then be traced onto paper. Artists and scientists made use of this phenomenon to produce realistic renditions of nature and buildings, first employing actual darkened rooms, then portable versions of the setup, from small tents to, eventually, small boxes. With the development of photographic technology and improved optics in the 19th century, the “camera obscura” shrank still further and became known as simply a “camera.” Today anything capable of producing a photographic image, even digitally, is called a “camera,” so the camera in your cell phone is a direct descendant of an artist painstakingly tracing a faint image cast on the wall of a darkened room several hundred years ago.

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