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Why Are Your Dedicated Reflective Surfaces Called Mirrors?

We live in a world of mirrors, and a bathroom without a big enough mirror and its associated fixtures and fittings is typically seen as incomplete. We need a reflection to see ourselves the way the rest of the world sees us, albeit with the lettering on our clothes reversed.

From the fate of Narcissus to the architecture of entire cities, mirrors have always been important and always been around us, and perhaps because of this we do not stop and wonder where the name “mirror” even comes from.

Given that mirrors are not only essential bathroom and vanity accessories but also express so many other meanings and ideas, this is important and provides food for thought for anyone adjusting their hair in front of a mirror as they prepare for a big day ahead.

Before The Looking Glass

The word mirror is unusual when it comes to the history of the English language, as it is a rare case of being the original name for something, that name being replaced by a more popular term before it returns again.

The word originates from Latin, but not from the Latin word for mirror, which is speculum, a term used in English to describe any mirrored metal medical instrument used to see into a narrow part of the body such as the ear canal or the nostril.

Instead, the term mirror comes from the old French word “mireoir”, which itself comes from the Latin “mirari”, which means “to admire” but is also often used to simply mean “to look at”.

At this point, mirrors were seen as an extreme luxury. As late as the 17th century, Madame de Fiesque rather infamously was said to have sold a wheat field in exchange for a mirror. Because of this, the language was not entirely defined.

A century before, the term looking glass, a somewhat literal translation of the Latin word speculum, which came from the other Latin word for “to look at”, “specere”, came into vogue as the more popular term for a mirror.

The evocative nature of the term looking glass gave mirrors and reflection not only the official meaning but also the more metaphorical interpretation of mirrors as a frank look back at ourselves.

It became so popular as a term for self-reflection that a lot of books in the 16th and 17th centuries were literally called some variation of England’s Looking Glass, despite the fact that outside of the very rich, almost nobody had an actual mirror or looking glass of their own.

This was not an entirely new idea even then, as one of the most famous lines of the 1599 William Shakespeare play Hamlet was about holding “the mirror up to nature”, in this context using it to describe the power The Mousetrap, and allegorical play used to root out his father’s killer.

According to Lily Campbell’s Poetical Mirrors of History, people tended to associate mirrors and looking glasses with the Greek philosopher Plato.

Specifically, in Book X of Republic, Plato uses an analogy involving a mirror to explain his concept of mimesis, or how art tries but ultimately will always fail to provide more than a brief glimpse of reality or a higher truth.

Looking glass was a hugely popular metaphor and as smaller mirrors became slightly more available to people, the concept became better understood

As the description of a 17th-century mirror rather amusingly described as “British, probably” noted, looking glasses were some of the most prized pieces of furniture available in England, and even during the early days of the Age of Sail, they were still imported for massive prices.

It is rather telling that the most famous and dramatic room in the impossibly opulent Palace of Versailles was its Grande Galerie or Hall of Mirrors.

Beyond The Looking Glass

Both mirror and looking glass, as well as the Latin loanword speculum were all used at the same time to describe what we now know as a mirror, but from the 16th until the 19th century in England, looking glass was typically seen as the more socially accepted term, associated with the upper class.

This is why the term was used so commonly in literature, most famously in the 1871 novel Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Outside of the United Kingdom, in fact, this is often the main, if not only, well-known usage of the term for a mirror and is often used metaphorically to describe a world of opposites similar to the one portrayed in the book, but why is this the case? 

One of the biggest reasons is the Industrial Revolution and what it did for the availability of mirrors. Prior to the mid-19th century, you had to be willing to sell a wheat field in order to buy a purpose-built mirror, rather than use sources of water or a glass reflection.

As with a lot of pieces of furniture and technological innovations, industrial-scale processes allowed almost anyone to buy a mirror of some kind, and like many other words such as lavatory and knave, language changed alongside use and accessibility.

As a result of this, looking-glass faded from common use within a century, and mirror became the most commonly used term, describing any purpose-made reflective surface. Ironically, looking glasses becoming popular made the term obsolete.

Unlike looking-glass, a term that generally described a specific (albeit fairly common) way of making a reflective surface through the use of glass and quicksilver (a tin and mercury amalgam), mirrors described any reflective surface.

Meanwhile, a lot of cheaper mirrors throughout history were made from anything that could be turned into reflective surfaces, typically including metals such as bronze or even stone that tarnished quickly and lost their reflective ability without frequent polishing.

Ultimately, the journey from the earliest mirrored surfaces to the modern bathroom is a long one, and the reason why we call them mirrors today is simply because they have the widest definition fitting the wide diversity of production techniques for modern mirrors purchasable today.

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