Icons and eye cons

2nd-century CE funeral portrait of a Roman Egyptian officer wearing a gold wreath (detail). Faiyum, Egypt

Wandering among Words 10: Pupil

What’s the link between a celebrity and a chrysalis, between a student and a pet, and between a marionette and a metaphorical apple? And, indeed, what are the links between them all?

Let’s take a closer look at this; and for looking we need an eye, and something to look at. So I shall start with the notion of the icon, and then range widely between observers and the observed. And where better to start than with one of the funerary portraits from Faiyum in Egypt, a painting done from life to be placed with the mummified body after death?

Here then is an exemplar of the Greek word eikon, meaning a likeness, image, or portrait; and like many portrait icons from later Christian traditions the subject gazes frankly out at the viewer with dark, dilated pupils. The look is almost mesmerising, reminding one of the proverb that the eyes are the window to one’s soul. Or, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”

We try to judge character from such icons, don’t we; but even though these days ‘icon’ usually has one of two popular meanings — a digital symbol used on social media, or an object or indeed celebrity judged to have ‘iconic status’ — both of course are visually presented, requiring the eye of the observer to appreciate them.

Image by Peter Scott for Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose

Though distinctive irises can also be striking, the most arresting eyes are often the ones with enlarged pupils. The word pupil in this sense appeared in English early in the 15th century via Old French pupille, itself from Latin pupilla. This originally meant a diminutive girl-doll, from Latin pupa “girl, also doll”: etymologists tell us this was because of the small image of oneself seen mirrored in the eye of another person. (Pupa is also used to describe one of the stages certain insects go through as they develop from egg, through larva and pupa, to the imago.)

The alternative modern meaning of ‘pupil’ as a student originates from the Old French word pupille (from Latin masculine pupillus) which indicated an orphan child, a ward, or a minor. Both masculine pupus, pupillus and feminine pupa, pupilla are believed to be related to puer, the word for (boy)child which has been familiar to beginner Latin students since the year dot, along with puella for girl.

Now I want to sidestep to the idea of the marionette. Doll-like figures worked by strings, wires or sticks to simulate human movements have an ancient lineage, part of a practice going back at least to the Ancient Greeks. The French term is derived from medieval marionette shows depicting Bible stories and which featured, amongst others, the Virgin Mary — from whom the name (‘Little Mary’) was applied to all such figures. Meanwhile, the French term guignol applies not to a marionette but to a glove puppet, named from a satiric character in a puppet show called Guignol (from guigner, to wink). The generic term for such figures in England is of course puppet, and this word takes us back to our earlier thread.

The French word poupée (‘doll’) clearly comes to us from the Latin pupa with the same meaning. A ‘little doll’ then becomes in French poupette and it’s from the latter that we get puppet. (Phonetically reminiscent but unrelated is the early Modern English word moppet, an endearment meaning a baby or girl but also a rag doll or puppet made from rags. It would be nice to think that the Muppets are also related but no, they are said to be a portmanteau word, a compound of marionette and puppet.)

Also originating from French poupée is our word puppy. Puppies were originally medieval women’s lapdogs whose purpose was supposedly to draw fleas away from their human owners. Since many puppies are treated like dolls (or is it that dolls are treated like puppies?) it’s often suggested that both puppies and dolls represent substitute babies for certain owners, though I’m not in a position to judge. But I can say is that puppy eyes have the same effect on many people as looking into the eyes of a babe in arms.

I once wondered if animals such as puppies were called pets because ‘pet’ was a shortening of ‘puppet’. On investigating I find the answer is possibly, or possibly not. For at least half a millennium ‘pet’ has been a Northern expression for a child who has been indulged as well as for an animal companion; even now it seems to be used as a term of endearment for all and sundry in northeast England. It’s surmised that it may be a back-formation of petty (from the French petite meaning little or small) but there’s no consensus of expert opinion so I won’t labour the point.

I come now to another common phrase indicating approval of a dear one, namely when a third party is described as “the apple of one’s eye.” In A Midsummer Night’s Dream Oberon gives advice on how and where to apply a love potion:

Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid’s archery,
Sink in apple of his eye!

What is this ocular apple? It’s the iris with its pupil imagined as a sphere, or perhaps the eyeball itself, and not an actual fruit of course. And when someone is described as the apple of one’s eye this is an indication of a truly convoluted notion of how a loved one is viewed and takes us back to the significance of the word pupil itself.

When we gaze with intensity from close range at someone — someone we may call ‘pet‘, perhaps, or have the kind of crush called puppy love — we may see reflected in their pupil the miniature or petite image of a doll-like person, looking perhaps like a poupée or puppet. That the image — the apple of one’s eye — is in fact of one’s own self may either imply self-love or simply that one may feel at one with the object of one’s love.

And this takes us back to icons — or perhaps ‘eye cons’, because these are images that fool the eye into imagining the portrait being beheld is of a real person.

I can unfortunately no longer locate the reference, but the historian John Julius Norwich once described the habit of a Byzantine empress of the 8th or 9th century whose husband was an iconoclast — one of a sequence of rulers who banned the making of holy images within the Eastern Empire. Unbeknown to him (or perhaps he covertly tolerated it) his wife kept sacred icons under her pillow, images which she kissed and cuddled like a baby, dolly or even puppy before she went to sleep.

Perhaps this was puppy love before the phrase was invented.

Christ Pantocrater icon, 6th century CE

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18 thoughts on “Icons and eye cons

  1. What an interesting post once again–so many word connections and origins I hadn’t come across or thought about though the icon-eye connection should be rather obvious.

    The most surprising for me was puppy and puppet, and indeed the original idea behind lap dogs, who knew?

    Guignol, I think is connected with Punch and Judy as well, is he not?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Guignol would indeed be the French description of glove puppet shows like Punch & Judy. As for the puppy-puppet-poupée relationship, when I was suddenly inspired by this insight a few years ago I was gratified to discover that it wasn’t just due to an overactive imagination but indeed a thing!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Josie. I see from my dashboard that I began drafting this three years ago, so heaven knows why it’s taken up till now for me to complete it! I was obviously unhappy with my original starting point, Shrek‘s Puss-in-Boot character who gets round his adversaries with his trademark look of big melting eyes…


    1. You’re welcome, Anne. 😊 That ‘apple’ metaphor is a curious one, and I’m not entirely won over by the common explanation that it’s about the spherical commonality of fruit and eyeball, but what do I know.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Those Faiyum portraits are amazing and worth googling just to see the range, Gert, this officer just one among many striking individuals. And I’ve seen many of them recently transformed into ‘real’ faces via apps and other computer wizardry — also worth a search. I’m pleased you liked my word rummaging, isn’t etymology fascinating? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. So glad you liked it, Stefy, grazie tantissimo! Ideally I’d like to have compared terms across Romance languages descended from Latin as well as dialect words but I’d need to do a lot more research; I’m sure there are Neapolitan and Sicilian words for puppets and puppies, as well as Romanian, Portuguese or Galician examples I could have explored!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, there is one I am familiar with and I’m sure you’ll like it as it is in line with your research: “pupi” (puppets) the famous “Pupi Siciliani”. In Neapolitan there is a similar word: pupatiello.

        Liked by 1 person

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