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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