July 22, 2013

Case File #013.07.22: KALEIDOSCOPE

Anyone who has ever been a kid—and that means everyone—is likely familiar with the kaleidoscope, that tube-shaped optical toy in which bits of colored paper or glass, held loosely at one end of the tube, are reflected against an arrangement of two or more mirrors to produce changing symmetrical patterns that are viewed through an eyehole as the tube (or a portion thereof) is rotated. The device was invented by Scottish physicist David Brewster in 1817, and he coined its name by combining three linguistic elements: the Greek adjective kalos, which means “beautiful”; the Greek noun eidos, which means “shape” or “form”; and the English scientific suffix -scope, which generally denotes an instrument used for viewing, observing, or examining. Thus, kaleidoscope literally means “beautiful-form viewer.” The figurative sense in which the word refers to “any variegated and shifting pattern or ever-changing combination of elements” first appeared in the second canto of Lord Byron's Don Juan in 1819, and while many dictionaries omit the verb senses—that is, “to create kaleidoscopic patterns” or “to change or shift in the manner of a kaleidoscope's imagery”—evidence suggests that kaleidoscope has been used as a verb since at least the 1890s.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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