On friends and photographic devices

The English word chum, meaning ‘friend,’ arose in the late 1600s as Oxford University slang, and there’s speculation that the word was a shortening of the phrase chamber fellow, the equivalent of what we would now call a roommate. English took chamber from Old French chambre, the synonym and cognate of Spanish cámara, which had developed from Late Latin camera ‘a room.’ If cámara/camera now means ‘a photographic device,’ it’s because during the Renaissance some people noticed that if they constructed a camera obscura ‘dark room’ with a small opening in one wall, an upside-down image of a bright subject outside would be cast on the opposite interior wall. It took centuries for researchers to figure out how to record such an image, during which time the term camera came to be applied to the smaller and smaller “chambers,” i.e. optical devices with dark interiors, that were involved.

Where English has the doublets chamber and camera, with the semantics split between them, the single Spanish word cámara conveys various senses: for example, there’s a cámara fotográfica and a cámara de comercio ‘chamber of commerce,’ and by itself a cámara is ‘a main room in a house.’ Further complicating the situation is that Spanish also has the compound recámara (there’s no parallel English *rechamber), which is ‘a room behind the main room in a house.’ In some Spanish-speaking countries that’s ‘a place to store clothing and jewelry,’ but in other countries it’s ‘a bedroom.’ A recámara can also be ‘the chamber in a firearm’ and by extension ‘a place in a mine where explosives are stored.’

One compound that Spanish and English share (because English took the word from Old French, which had gotten it from Old Spanish) is camarada/comrade, etymologically (in the plural) ‘[people who] room together, roommates,’ or as Oxford University students started saying over 300 years ago, ‘chums.’

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jim in IA
    Sep 09, 2015 @ 22:01:32

    I wrote about the camera obscura a couple of years ago. They are very interesting.


  2. Maria F.
    Sep 10, 2015 @ 17:12:13

    What a great essay Steve! Another one I thought of was ‘camarero/ra’ which is a waitress, or a housekeeper, from Latin (camararĭus, camerarĭus, de cámara). El ‘camarógrafo/fa’ is the video camera man.


  3. shoreacres
    Sep 10, 2015 @ 20:52:33

    Lots of things come to mind. We have a bicameral legislature, and judges meet privately with attorneys in chambers. One of my favorite musical groups in Houston is Da Camera. As you’d expect, they specialize in chamber music of various sorts.

    When I hear the word “chum,” I usually think of food thrown onto the water to attract fish, and the process of doing so is called “chumming.” The OED suggests this use of the word has different roots, possibly in the Scottish word for food.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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