From room to zoom: a snapshot of the camera

Girl with camera

How many photographs will we take in 2017?

Over a million? Not even close. Over a billion? Way more: conservative estimates are that we’ll take 1.2 trillion pictures this year, with our smartphones snapping the vast majority of them. That’s twice as many as four years ago. We are, some believe, drowning in digital imagery, saturated in snapshots, seemingly captivated by an invention whose rapidly evolving nature reflects our own: the camera.

A Camera with a View

Like taxi, camera is one of very few words that’s understood almost everywhere – except in a couple of places, including (rather ironically) the most photographed country on Instagram. If you ever lose your camera in Italy, explaining “Ho perso la mia camera!” might get you some odd looks. The Italian word camera has retained the sense of its Latin predecessor, and means (bed)room or chamber. (Instead, you can say you’ve lost your – take a deep breath – macchina fotografica.).

But how did we make the etymological leap from a room to a photographic device? To find out, we need to zoom out and take a longer look at history.

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[For the Oxford Words blog:] Lost in translation…so I was: adventures in Irish English

Cliffs of Moher fort

We were lost – having turned off a brand new and completely empty motorway that cut across the lush green hills of the West coast of Ireland in a quest to visit my Irish mother’s third cousins twice removed. So we finally pulled up next to an old road sign, which confusingly said:

 Knockroe           Knockroe

My English sister turned on the satnav and said “OK, tell me the name of the street.”

“Sure Knockroe hasn’t any street names,” said my mother.

“Postcode? Everyone has a postcode!” tried my sister, frantically tapping the satnav which was largely blank.

“There are no postcodes in Ireland!” said my mother.

“But how do you find anyone?” said my sister, with all the exasperation of someone born in Generation Y who now finds themselves inexplicably without a signal.

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Relational language: the language of cousins

Trees

It would always throw people when we told them. The four of us – my sister and I, and the two boys – spent all our school holidays together, and we all had dark hair. So when people asked if my “brothers” wanted an ice cream too, I’d have to take a deep breath and explain – in the long-suffering way that only a ten-year-old can – that they weren’t actually my “brothers” but my “second cousins once removed”. Typically, the reaction would be one of deep befuddlement (particularly from other children: “removed from what??”) Meanwhile, anyone vaguely familiar with the workings of kinship would hazard tentatively, “But if they’re once removed…why are they the same age as you?” (If you can guess why we were all more or less the same age, check your answer at Age is just a number.)

So this article is an attempt to help you fathom out your family tree, or at least the lower branches. First, though, let’s look at the pedigree of the word cousin itself.

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Chasing the rainbow connection

Rainbow at Pauanui

Reflect and refract

When was the last time you looked out the window and said, “Oh look! There’s a many-coloured refraction of light from drops of water!”? Well – OK, if you said that last week then feel free to skip the next paragraph, but most of us refer to the sudden splash of colours in the sky as a rainbow, an eye-catching natural phenomenon which has been rich in cultural significance throughout human history.

The science behind rainbows is reasonably straightforward: when sunlight hits a raindrop, it slows down and is refracted, or made to change direction. The raindrop acts as a tiny prism, splitting the white light into all its individual hues. Some of this light is reflected back and further refracted on entering the air again, dispersing outwards to create the spectrum of shades whose names we probably all remember from the school playground.

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The language of leap years

Leaping

What have Italian composer Rossini and American rapper Ja Rule got in common? A number of possible answers may leap to mind here, but the one I’m looking for is that the two musicians were both born on a date that is mysteriously elusive: 29 February. Except that 2012 is a leap year, and so this year the estimated 5 million or so leaplings, leapers, or leap-year babies around the world actually get to blow out the candles on the cake for their quadrennial celebration. During the intervening common years, however, the timing of their birthday festivities depends on the laws of whichever land they’re in. In New Zealand, a leaplings official birthday is deemed to be 28 February, whereas in Britain it’s 1 March. If you timed it right, you could fly from one country to the other for the world’s longest birthday.

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