Zoom is one of many technology-related words that Spanish has borrowed from English in recent decades. This term is from the world of photography, where a zoom lens is one that allows the photographer to choose from a range of focal lengths and avoid having to change to a fixed-focus lens of a different focal length. Here’s how the Spanish-language Wikipedia explains zoom: “Un objetivo zoom (agregado en el Diccionario de la lengua española de la Real Academia Española como zum) es un objetivo de distancia focal variable, es decir, aquellos en los que se puede variar a voluntad la distancia focal y, en consecuencia, el ángulo de visión, manteniendo el plano-imagen en el mismo sitio.”

English talks about zooming in and zooming out, which a zoom lens does silently. When a car goes zooming by, however, it makes noise, and it’s the noise rather than the motion that English zoom originally represented. Yes, the word zoom, with the voiced sibilant of its z and the humming of its m, arose as an imitation of a sound, particularly the type of sound made by a bumblebee or other flying insect. Only later was the sense transferred to the movement of the insect as it flies around from place to place. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, zoom appeared in English only as recently as 1886, so although the famous Romantic poets could have described a meadow of wildflowers, they couldn’t have spoken of a bee zooming about in that meadow. When the age of aviation arrived, zoom was already there as a good word to describe the sound and movement of an airplane. The term zoom lens apparently came into use in 1936.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

15 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. WordSnooper.com
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 20:51:20

    Like all your posts, this one was very interesting, Steve. I found hits for “zoom” for the period 1800-1866 in Google’s Ngram Viewer. Most were references to the town of Bergen-op-Zoom, but one was a German song with sounds of the musical instruments, including, “Viol, fal-lal-la ! das ist mein viol ; Zoom-zoom-zoom! das ist mein cymbal ; Bom -bom-bom ! das ist mein trombone ; Tic-knock-knock ! das ist mein triangle ; Pilly-willy-wink ! das ist mein fifie ; Rub-a-dub-a-dub ! das ist mein drummel …”
    I thought the Three Men in a Tub were just rubbing themselves clean, but maybe they were playing a drum.


  2. Andy Klatt
    Mar 16, 2012 @ 20:57:21

    Spanish ‘zumbar’ and ‘zumbido’ could be mentioned in this context. They do indeed refer to the sound.


  3. georgettesullins
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 05:12:32

    Antonio Machado “¡qué lejos se oye el zumbido/ de la abeja libadora!” When I think of Machado, I think of his bees, flies, his every day references to the most common of things. He has always been my favorite from the generation of ’98. I’m sure we have J. M. Serrat to thank for bringing him to our attention.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 17, 2012 @ 06:30:35

      Thanks for the line from Antonio Machado. I remember reading a few of his poems when I lived in Honduras, but I’m sorry to say I’m not really familiar with his work. Now I know about his references to everyday things.

      I didn’t know about the connection to Joan Manuel Serrat, so I looked on the Internet. Here’s a relevant passage from Wikipedia: “In 1969, Serrat released an album containing songs with texts of Antonio Machado, a well-known Spanish poet of late 19th-early 20th century. This album brought him immediate fame in all Spain and Latin America though, in spite of this, his decision to sing in Spanish was criticized in some Catalan nationalist circles. Regarding this and other times when his choice of language (sometimes Spanish, sometimes Catalan) raised controversy on either side of the political sphere, he once explained: ‘I sing better in the language they forbid me.'”


  4. whilldtkwriter
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 05:39:19

    Your article reminded me of Aretha Franklin’s song “Who’s zoomin’ who”, for which the meaning never was clear to me. (The statement grates me for ungrammatical structure anyway–who’s zooming whom being the correct structure.) Anyway, according to http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=zoom, “zoom” (verb) in her song is synonymous with “fool”. From http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1314996?uid=3739920&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=55905271813, I infer the meaning to be more specific–turning the tables on someone else. My recollection about the phrase is that the song was a huge hit, but the term didn’t spread to become commonly used then or ever.


  5. Steve Schwartzman
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 06:56:37

    Thanks for all the information about that colloquial use of zoom, which I didn’t know. One of the books about slang that I have gives the meaning ‘amphetamines, specifically Methedrine™.’ Wentworth and Flexner’s 1960 book on slang gives this meaning of zoom as a verb: ‘to get something without paying for it.’ That fits, but I don’t know if it was the intended meaning of the line from the song.

    Coming back to the zoom of the post, I see that Wentworth and Flexner give zoom buggy as an [even then] outdated term for ‘an automobile.’ Early cars must have struck people with their noise when compared to a horse-drawn buggy.


  6. shoreacres
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 20:33:44

    There was a later use of “who’s zoomin’ who?” that suggests it endured for a while. The last episode of the first season of “Grey’s Anatomy” (2005) used the phrase for its title. In the episode, a number of interns are discovered to have STDs, which suggests “who’s foolin’ who” is a pretty apt interpretation of the phrase.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 17, 2012 @ 22:41:54

      And I guess it’s fair to assume the interns got something without paying for it!


    • whilldtkwriter
      Mar 18, 2012 @ 06:08:57

      Thanks for the mention of Grey’s Anatomy. I did see a reference to the show while poking around the web. Did not see the episode myself, but might some day. Sure enough, they used the song title for the episode title. Not sure that anyone in the episode uttered the phrase, or piped tidbits of the song. I’d say that the phrase wasn’t actually an indication of enduring use of the term so much as a catchy use of an old song title for a short episode title. The song came out in 1985; the episode came out 20 years later.


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