Monthly Archives: December 2009

cameo /’kæmiːəʊ/

Although I am willing to admit that she is very attractive and clearly popular, I am not a fan of Beyoncé or her music.


I can just about tolerate her as Foxy Cleopatra in the Austin Powers movie, Goldmember, but I wouldn’t spend any money downloading songs or videos. Like many current singers, she suffers from melisma – that irritating method of singing whereby you take a single syllable and subject it to as many different notes as you can squeeze in before falling unconscious. Call me old fashioned but having one syllable match one note seems perfectly adequate and trying to bludgeon a syllable into submission by egregious warbling seems like cruel and unusual punishment.

However, her current offering, Video Phone (featuring the not-so-melismic Lady Gaga) provides this week’s word – cameo. In the song, she says;

“You saying that you want me
So press record, I’ll let you film me
On your video phone, make a cameo
Tape me on your video phone, I can handle you”

In this context, the meaning of the word is, as the OED puts it, “a small character part that stands out from the other minor parts.” This is found in movies where there’s a brief appearance by someone who is not actually part of the movie as such, and indeed may not even be credited.  A classic cameo artist is Alfred Hitchcock, who appeared in many of his movies very briefly and comic book writer Stan Lee has popped up in a number of Marvel movies based on his characters.

One of the earliest references to the film cameo comes from Edmund Crispin’s Frequent Hearses in 1950 where he says, “A cameo part… the film equivalent of a bit part on the stage.”

Earlier than that, a cameo referred to a short literary sketch or portrait. In 1901, the Daily News of 19th January noted that, “This volume is mainly composed of biographical sketches… Altogether there are here about ninety of these cameo-biographies.”

Originally, a cameo referred to a type of jewelry or ornament:

A precious stone having two layers of different colours, in the upper of which a figure is carved in relief, while the lower serves as a ground. For this purpose the ancients used the onyx, agate, etc., and especially the sardonyx, ‘a variety of chalcedony, consisting of alternate parallel layers of white and red chalcedony’, which was carved so as to leave a white figure in relief on a red ground. (OED, Vol.II, p.805.)


Although the word can be traced back to the Italian caméo, camméo, and thence to Latin cammæus, there’s no record of anything further back in time. However, in a 1900 copy of the Journal of the Society of Arts, Volume 49, there’s a “miscellaneous” piece entitled The Etymology of Cameo, and the Classification of “Gems” and the writer, one George Birdwood, suggests that the word may be a corruption of the Latin gemma meaning “gem” or “pearl,” and perhaps even derived from the Greek γεμίζω (gemizo) which means “fill” or “load”or “fattened” – like a pearl. He also notes that some people suggest it is linked to the Arabic camea, meaning “a charm.” But ultimately there are no written records to support this.

And talking of something standing out in relief, in 1986, the group Cameo had a hit with the song Word Up, a catchy, funky, hip-hop song that was made all the more compelling by the video released along with the record. In it, lead singer Larry Blackmon sports an enormous red codpiece.

Cameo frontman with codpiece

Like many early words in the English language, the word turns out to have an abundance of optional spellings; camehu, cameu, camaheu, camahieu, gamahieu, camahier, camayeu, camaïeu, camahutus, camahotus, camahelus, and camaheu – and there are others!


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prurient /’prʊərɪənt/

So what’s the link between an irritating medical condition, pornographic materials, and the English satirist Thomas Nashe (1567-1601)? If the answer eludes you, read on.

In that famous, pot-boiling bodice-ripper, Langfrank’s Science of cirurgie (surgery), written in 1400, reference is made to “pruritus,” which causes and “icchinge” and “reednes” – roughly translated as itching and redness. The word pruritus stems from the Latin prurire, which means “to itch.” By the 15th century, it had taken on the metaphorical meaning of an intellectual itch, or a mental itch. In 1653, Jeromy Taylor wrote in his A course of sermons for all the Sundaies of the year, “If there be a pruritus or itch of talking, let it be in matters of Religion.”

The word is synonymous with prurigo, defined by the OED as;

An itching; spec. in Path., a diseased condition of the skin attended by a violent and chronic itching, and characterized by the presence of flat slightly red papules, and  a thickening of the part affected.

The word also comes from the prurire root with the addition of the -igo suffix. -igo, along with -ago and -ugo, is used to indicate a disease. According to an article by clinical pharmacologist Jeff Aronson in the British Medical Journal[1];

In Latin the suffix -ago, or -igo, or -ugo was often used to denote a disease, giving us albugo (a white opacification of the cornea), caligo (dim vision), impetigo, intertrigo, lentigo, porrigo (dandruff), prurigo, serpigo, tentigo (priapism), vertigo, and vitiligo, more than half of them diseases of the skin. So lumbago was a pain in the loins, or later in the middle of the back.

The word used to describe the physical sensation of itching became a metaphorical reference for “having an itching desire or curiosity, or an uneasy morbid craving.” (OED, Vol. XII, p.733). Bishop John Gauden wrote in Hieraspitses: a defence by way of apology for the ministry and ministers of the church of England (1653) said, “Politick affectations of piety, which grow as scurfe or scabs, over those prurient novelties of opinion.”

John Gauden

It was only a short step from there to the use of the word in a more, well, prurient manner;

Given to the indulgence of lewd ideas; impure-minded; characterized by lasciviousness of thought or mind.

Satirist Tobias Smollett (1721-1771) was the author of a number of novels, one of which being Reproof: a satire (1747), in which he penned, “Debauch’d from sense, let doubtful meanings run, The vague conundrum, and the prurient pun.” Perhaps also an early reference for that other popular vehicle of humor, the double-entendre? In a wonderfully apposite twist, Smollett was trained as a surgeon and even spent time as a ship’s surgeon on the HMS Chichester, sailed to Jamaica, and lived there for a few years. Doubtless he came across a number of cases of prurigo.

By the 18th century, prurience had come to refer primarily to this meaning, as noted by Christopher Ricks in his 1974 Keats and Embarrassment;Prurience, pruriency, and prurient came fully into their modern meaning (from itching) in the eighteenth century.”

So onwards to 1957 and a landmark case know as Roth v. United States, where Supreme Court Justice Brennan attempted to define obscenity from a legal perspective. The specific line said that obscenity was speech that “…to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material, taken as a whole, appeals to prurient interest” and which is “utterly without redeeming social importance…”

Ignoring the problems of identifying the “average person,” “community standards” and “social importance,” the word prurient itself is used in the modern sense of lewd and lascivious. Yet by 1973, the law on obscenity was amended to include a refining of the definition for prurient. In Miller v. California, Chief Justice Warren Burger offered the following:

“Appeals to the prurient interest” means that which appeals to “shameful or morbid interests” in sex, but not that which incites normal lust and includes materials designed for and primarily disseminated to a deviant sexual group (for example, sadists) which appeals to the prurient interests of that group.

Although this is the current definition – the Miller Test – there is still considerable debate about what it means. In 1984, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit defined prurience as “a shameful and morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion.”

Of course, modern tabloid media often appeals to “prurient interest” and the entire MTV and VH1 networks would shut down if they had to go back to simply playing music. Most of the “reality” shows are little more than prefabricated opportunities for sexual behavior that skirts the definition of obscenity just enough to offend but not enough to claim they don’t appeal to prurience. A major feature of these shows is to watch (and the word voyeurism springs to mind here) to see who is having sex with who, and who will have the most sex with the most number of people. It’s a clever attorney who can argue that these shows have “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” (the SLAPS test for obscenity – if you can show you are “slapping,” you ain’t obscene!)

And during the investigation into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, more column inches were dedicated to the use of cigars and dress stains than any actual constitutional issues. My guess is that most folks who picked up the Starr Report probably flipped to the juicy bits first – and then put it down. The online version available at the Time Magazine site even opens with the titillating WARNING: The following report contains sexually explicit language. Now if THAT isn’t prurient, what is?

Stained blue dress

Similarly, shows such as TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras with its parade of prostitots doubtless panders to the prurient interests of pedophiles but continues to be shown and defended by folks who argue that it has serious artistic merit.

And thereby hangs the problem with prurience; it is so dependent on personal perception and social mores that using the word as a legal term is hopeless.

Oh, and the English satirist Thomas Nashe? Well, back in 1589, he used the first – and perhaps only – pun based on the word prurient. In his pamphlet The Returne of the renowned Cavaliero Pasquill and his Meeting with Marforius wrote;

I frequented the Churches of the Pruritane Preachers…
Marf: I pray you, Syr, why doe you call them Pruritanes?
Pasq: They have an itch in all their eares.

The pun word, pruritan, is a hapax legomenon; a word that appears to only occur once in the English lexicon, and perhaps overdue for an outing, although it’s hard to beat H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”


[1] Aronson, J. (2002). When I use a word: Round the back. British Medical Journal, 324(7343): 957.

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