Friday, 29 January 2016

Word to the Wise

Neglected gems of the language for taking down the pub and introducing to your mates.


Aye-sop-tro-fo-bee-uh: Noun: fear of mirrors; the fear of seeing oneself in a mirror

Quite a ticklish one to get the old tongue around this time, and one that belongs in origin to our old friends the Ancient Greeks, rooted as it is in eis, meaning into, plus optikos, image or vision, and then, tacked on at the end, phobos, fear or panic, which we all recognise in phobia. Eggheads and boffins those Greeks may well have been but, when it came to mirrors, it seems they had more than their share of trouble in coping, so much so that they had another word for this particular fear also: catoprophobia, from katoptron, meaning mirror. Even those savage brutes, the Romans, despite their pronounced penchant for scourging, crucifying and the throwing of Christians to lions, came over a tad squeamish when it came to catching their own reflection in the quicksilver, their word for it being spectrophobia, from specere, to look at, spectrum and spectre being from the same root. But, whereas the Greeks’ eisoptrophobia is more fear of your own reflection, the Romans with their spectrophobia were afraid of the object itself: that something might leap out and get them; or that they might see something bad or evil reflected there; that they might be pulled into it; or that spirits from another world might be watching them through it. Honestly, what a bunch of big girls’ blouses the Ancient Romans really were. 

Pamela Anderson, the vegan, animal rights, anti-furtrade, Aids and PETA campaigner, is said to be the best known name amongst sufferers of eisoptrophobia, claiming that, “I have this phobia: I don't like mirrors. And I don't watch myself on television. If anything comes on, I make them shut it off.” (Great Scott! Perhaps we might have a touch of eisoptrophobia ourself, seeing we can never bear to watch her on television either). What a stroke of luck she didn’t come down with gymnophobia as well, or that would’ve been one promising career right down the Swannee before ever it got started. Just for the record, “down the Swannee” may (possibly) hark back to when slaves were “sold down the river”, meaning ending up in one of the more southerly states where conditions of captivity were far harsher than further north. For purists, it perhaps should actually be Suwannee, the valley and county (in Florida) both being of that spelling, though there is a suggestion (to be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt) that Suwannee itself developed from “San Juan-ee,” from when the Spanish Conquistadors were setting about their deplorable empire building activities and plundering all the silver they could lay their mitts on. Luckily enough, we had people like Drake and Raleigh hanging about the place, ready to relieve them of their ill-gotten gains.

More than likely, many of us have at least a little touch of the eisoptrophobic about us (and, yes, that is speaking personally), caring not for our own image, whether that be reflected in the unlying quicksilver; caught fleet and unsuspected in passing plate glass; or even in the unforgiving pixels of the casual snapshot. On the other hand, we all of us know at least one example of the polar opposite: the eisoptromaniac, those who would wear out the mirror with their ceaseless self-admiration; who, were they made of chocolate, would probably eat themselves. The narcissistic. Narcissus, of course, is the prime example of the eisoptromaniac, or so we’ve been led to believe, though it seems he may have simply had a bad press over the whole episode (this is Ancient Greek again so, antediluvian as Rupert Murdoch is, it all pre-dates any of his loathsome rags so we can’t blame him this time). However, there’s no getting away from the fact that he was haughtily proud (we’re back with Narcissus now, by the bye) and “disdained those who loved him” so Nemesis (she’s spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, you’ll recall) gets the hump and lures him to a pool, where he sees his own reflection in the water and falls in love with it. The thing is, though, he doesn’t realise it’s his own image, so he stays there staring at it until he dies. Some versions have him committing suicide, others that he’s turned into a flower, probably that one that’s pretty much like a daffodil. Either way, still a complete dead loss.

Needless to say, our fascination with our own image goes back a very long way, the first mirrors being, rather like Narcissus’s, nothing more than pools of dark, still water. The earliest proper ones were fashioned out of polished stone, something like obsidian, which, as the geologists out there will tell you, is a naturally occurring volcanic glass, some of these dating back as far as 6000 BC. Metal-coated glass mirrors are said to have come in somewhere in the first century AD, while good old Pliny mentions versions backed with gold leaf in his Natural History of around 77 AD. The Romans also developed a technique for coating blown glass with molten lead to get by with, so perhaps they weren’t so in fear of their own image as was thought, though more than likely this was merely a result that came about by chance whilst they were dreaming up new and ever-more-hideous ways of cutting down on the Christian population. By about 500, the first silver-mercury amalgams were appearing, quicksilver, the work of the Chinese, but it had to wait until the early Renaissance in Europe for any sophistication to get itself involved. Venice, in particular, with its glass-making expertise, became a centre of mirror production, creating ones that would turn out to be extremely expensive luxuries. Which might be where the superstition arose that it means seven years’ bad luck to break one, though the first few minutes, in such a case, would probably be the worst. The secret of the quicksilver was a highly guarded one but we managed to get our hands on it in the end. Much the same way as we got all that Spanish silver. We nicked it.

What with all this high-class glass knocking about, and now stylish and sumptuous mirrors to go with it, this really gave the old brushpushers of the early Renaissance something challenging to get their teeth into. Not least, it gave them the opportunity to bang out a self-portrait whenever the fancy took them (and some of those blighters really were eisoptromaniacs when it came down to it). But give them any old shiny surface with myriad reflections and they’d be as happy as Larry. (Incidentally, this Larry might be Larry Foley (1847 - 1917), an Australian boxer who never lost a fight and retired aged thirty two. For his last bout he collected a purse of a thousand pounds, plus he was originally marked down to become a Catholic priest – that never happened – so two pretty convincing reasons why this Larry sort might’ve been so infuriatingly smug about his lot). Be that as it may, or not, what we’re up to here – as you may have suspected – is finding an excuse to unashamedly shoehorn into these columns that astounding masterpiece by Jan Van Eyck, the Arnolfini Portrait (or Wedding), which is just about the last word when it comes to painting mirrors.

The entire piece – dating from an amazingly early 1434 – is lavishly, exquisitely executed from top to dog, though it’s the mirror that concerns us here. Check out the roundels on the frame for a start off. These depict scenes from the Passion of Christ, possibly representing God’s promise of salvation for those reflected in the mirror itself. All the ones on the wife’s side are of the death and resurrection, while the old man’s side hogs all those from His life and works. A spotless mirror was also an established symbol of the Virgin Mary, a reference to her Immaculate Conception and purity. Though, if you notice, the curtains of their own marriage bed are open and ready to receive, once the painter finally gets through and they can indulge themselves in some good old nuptial activity of a highly un-Madonna like nature. Two other figures can be spotted lurking in the background, some suggesting that one may be Van Eyck himself, and others (more controversially) that they’re the requisite number of witnesses so that the whole thing is made legal. Which is also what some argue about the signature daubed on the wall – Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434 (Jan Van Eyck was here) – just above the mirror, that it makes the piece some kind of wedding certificate. Like much of the supposed symbolism allegedly contained within, there has been much tosh and hot air spouted about this incredible work.

Whilst we’re admiring the intricate and infinite detail of the painting, it’s worth remembering that the entire panel is just some eighty two centimetres by sixty (less than three feet high, for those still working in old money). The chandelier affair is a remarkably fine effort on its own, as is the dog (the only one whose gaze confronts the viewer) but they’re an odd looking pair, wouldn’t you say? Him, with his bulbous eyes and whacking great hooter, while she looks a regular misery who’s trying to swallow a persistent Toffo. Don’t be fooled, though: she’s not pregnant. For one thing she hasn’t got one of those infernally smug badges on that proudly proclaim “Baby On Board,” designed for seat-getting on crowded commutes (though female colleagues have informed us that these are a practical device for avoiding those cripplingly embarrassing situations in which one gallantly rises, only to discover that the condition is not post-coital but pure porkiness – so let’s not get too cynical about them, eh?) No, she’s actually being extremely fashionable, as is old man Giovanni in his dude’s threads and outrageous hattery and, as he’s a cloth merchant with cash on the hip, he wants this aspect of his personality to shine through. Jan Van Eyck was no stranger to outlandish foppery (nor to the eisoptromaniacal self-portrait), as witnessed by this bizarre number with turban. Actually, he’s no real looker himself, when you get down to it. We might even go so far as to say, “He’s no oil painting, is he?”

The word mirror itself comes from the Latin, mirare, to look at, this being a variant of mirari, to wonder at, from which comes admire. Miracle, too, comes out of the same stable and, to that, we can also tack on smile, which is also rooted there. All of which makes you wonder about the Ancient Romans, what with this close association between admiring themselves in the mirror and smiling at what a miracle they were witnessing thereby. Whereas our own Old English word for smile, smearcian, has been bumped down the pecking order rather, so that it’s turned into smirk with all its unpleasant sneering connotations. Even though that’s probably exactly what these blighters were doing all the while they were gazing at their own images in the quicksilver.

The mirror is deeply rooted in tradition, folklore and superstition, as we all know. One of the earliest encounters for each of us with the article in question, in all probability, was via the rhyme, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” from Snow White, of course, thereby instilling in young impressionable minds (in a fashion not unlike the fearsome Catholic inculcation of the dread of sin) that the things are to be treated with some caution. For a start off, we were being asked to believe that mirrors can talk, and that they can happily maintain robust opinions on matters of aesthetics (even judge beauty contests, at a push), and that they can see exactly what folk are getting up to when they’re not even in the room or anywhere within hailing distance for that matter. Small wonder, then, that we can so readily accept other absurdly implausible notions, such as: if a woman sits in a darkened room with only a candle for light (some stipulate Halloween as best for doing this), then eats an apple and brushes her hair, she will see the image of the man she’ll marry behind her shoulder. But woe betide the poor wretch who sees no such apparition, for all that awaits her is the loneliness of spinsterhood. (We strongly advocate giving any such practices a wide berth, which is the only sure way for you girls to avoid any such disappointments completely. Well, until you finally do meet your future husband, that is).

It was Perseus who first got mirroring to really work hard for him, when he had to do battle with the Gorgon, Medusa. She was the unlikely sort who had snakes for hair and who’d turn you to stone if you so much looked at her, if you recall. So Perseus polishes his shield up into a nice shine, then watches her reflection in that until he’s within a sword’s swing of her and can simply lop her head clean off, job done. Much like our artist friends of earlier, also fascinated by all things shiny and reflective were the occultists and astrologers, using such objects in their pursuit of knowledge through catopromancy and the art of scrying, in both of which the good old crystal ball plays a prominent role. Though a mirror would do just as well in a sticky situation. Even a boffin like Pythagoras, way back in the sixth century BC, wasn’t above a spot of catopromancy when the inclination took him and there was a full moon.

One of our very own in the scrying department was John Dee, court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, and he’s supposed to have sorted out when would be best for her coronation according to such methods (asking the mirror or, in his case, the obsidian). And he’s credited with prophesying the Powder Treason of 1605. Plus he amassed one of the largest libraries in England at that time. Oh, and first coined the term “British Empire”, just for good measure. And yet, despite all that, it turns out that he was pretty much your common-or-garden Elizabethan ninny in the end. Things first started to go a tad pear-shaped when he got himself entangled with a rascal called Edward Talbot, a fellow scryer, though his real name was Kelley, under which he’d been convicted of coining – and had his ears lopped for it, so the signs were there. Together, they formed a double act based around intense Christian piety (on Dee’s part anyhow, while Kelley remained a self-delusional cynic) and the pair really started going places, particularly with the royal houses of Europe, so the coin was soon flowing in faster than Kelley could clip it. Dee steadfastly maintained that Kelley was the bee’s knees at this astrology lark, and that he’d even had several books dictated to him by angels. If you believe that sort of tosh, then you’re really in trouble. As it chanced, Dee had a rather comely wife, nearly thirty years his junior, whereas Kelley was stuck with a run-of-the-mill old boiler of the sort that would go marrying a half-eared convicted forger, which didn’t seem quite right to the conman half of the partnership somehow. So Kelley tells Dee that the angels have ordered them to share all their possessions. Including the wives. Dee’s naturally reluctant but what could he do when the angels were insisting? So he complies. And nine months later Mrs Dee presents him with a sprog. Dee was one of Europe’s foremost scryers and the Queen of England’s personal astrologer, don’t forget. And yet he never saw any of this coming, did he?

Then there’s Nostradamus, of course, a name familiar to all, even though, come July 2, he will’ve been dead some four hundred and fifty years. His name was actually Michel de Nostredame – Mike to his mates – and, in 1550, he wrote an almanac (or year book), which did so well he decided to knock one out annually. Then he started work on the big one, a book of a thousand quatrains (or predictions, you might say) called Les Propheties, using astral and planetary alignments during past events to say that, when they lined up like that again, exactly the same would occur a second time. All the contemporary astrologers debunked his theory as ineffable twaddle and balderdash – well, they would do, wouldn’t they? Professional jealousy and all that. Only it turns out that, despite his unflagging fame and the fact that his works have never been out of print, not a single one of his predictions has turned out to be worth the parchment they’re written on. Mainly because they’re all wrapped up in obscurity so that they could be applied to anything. And often are. You know the type of thing: a dark interloper will appear bearing an unwelcome message – which may only mean that next door’s moggy has found out you’ve just been digging a fresh strip of garden.

But the seer we’ve really got to take our hats off to (almost literally) is Joseph Smith, founder of the Latter Day Saint movement (the Mormons), who gained all his “miraculous information” from, well, from three stones. He even had a favourite one, a brown one he half-inched from a neighbour’s well (the man next door probably didn’t realise it could tell the future) and he put these stones to good use by hunting for treasure with them. All he had to do was put the stone into his hat and then plunge his face in after it and he’d see prophetic images reflected therein. Or maybe he just got high on sweaty Brylcreem fumes? Yes, well we might mock such bizarre behaviour but, if we ourselves had only shoved our own faces into our hats, perhaps we too might have come up with a radical idea on which to base a whole new religion. Then maybe we too might’ve known what it was like to have a smash hit West End musical on our hands …


Socrates, his Wives and Alcibiades: Reyer Jacobsz. van Blommendael [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pinocchio by Enrico Mazzanti (first illustrator of Pinocchio): By Enrico Mazzanti (1852-1910) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pamela Anderson: By Photographer's Mate Airman Aaron Burden, USN [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Narcissus: Caravaggio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crucifixion of St Peter painted by Caravaggio: By Alvesgaspar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Arnolfini Portrait: Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Arnolfini Portrait detail (mirror): Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of a Man in a Turban (Jan van Eyck): Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Queen Consults the Mirror: Franz Jüttner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Crystal Ball by John William Waterhouse (1902): John William Waterhouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

John Dee performing an experiment before Queen Elizabeth : By Henry Gillard Glindoni (1852-1913) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nostradamus, portrayed by his son: César de Nostredame [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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