Not That Kind of Speculum
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Much like the word spectrophilia means both a fetish for ghosts and a fetish for mirrors, the word “speculum” has multiple meanings, and we can’t help but notice the etymological similarities. Here’s an episode of Etymology for Goth Polyglots for those of you curious about the origin of the word “speculum.”
When our recent guest Bill said the word in casual supernatural conversation, we just assumed he was referring to his collection of Victorian medical equipment. After all, most people I know just associate the word with a chilly, awkward-yet-convenient way to, ahem, open boxes.
It turns out, the word is less about the specific item on view, and more about the viewing act itself.
The etymology of speculum
“Spek-” was the PIE root word for “to observe.” Think of words like inspect, introspection, spectrum, speculate, perspective, spectacles, respect, speculation, suspicion. All have to do with some point of view, or an observation. The sound has similar meaning in many other languages. These include spasati which means “sees” in Sanskrit; the Greek word skopos meaning “watcher, beholder;” or the Old High German word spehhon, meaning “to spy.” But nowhere does its modern use become more obvious than Latin specere “to look at.” This word birthed the Latin speculum, or “mirror” (pl. specula).
The magical speculum
Throughout the Middle Ages, speculum took on a number of vernacular meanings above and beyond the simple looking glass. Speculum referred to any sort of device used for insight through reflection in either a literal or figurative sense. In early medieval times, the word speculum used to refer to magical scrying devices. A black mirror, witch ball, crystal ball, or shiny polished stone are all examples of specula for scrying.
Witch balls were in part popularized by the famous Irish witch Biddy Early. Biddy was from County Clare, Ireland, where Diana’s ancestors emigrated from. Also where Dumbledore took Harry to search for the locket horcrux. This Irish healer famously foretold the future by gazing into a blue bottle given to her by the specter of her deceased son Tom. She also coerced an injured handsome young man into marrying her in exchange for his cure. Sounds sassy, especially when you realize she was well over 70 at the time, and had already survived at least 3 (maybe 5) husbands. Could this be the origin of the term “old biddy?” The event was so bizarre that the press announced it. This during a time when only nobility ran marriage announcements. It probably also went a long way towards her reputation as a witch.
The insightful literary speculum
The twelfth century saw another common use for the term: insightful subjective guidebooks. Written specula were hybrid how-to guides and advice columns for various subsections of society. Basically “how to be a good _______” tracts, but with the addition of introspective philosophical reasoning. There was the Speculum virginum for nuns. Speculum ecclesiae for clergy. Speculum judiciale for judges. Even early on in the literary genre’s history, there were instances of speculum satire. My favorite reference is the Speculum stultorum. Meaning “Mirror of Fools,” this fable tells of a literal ass who accidentally starts his own lazy religious order in an attempt to grow a longer tail. An amusing story of mystical drugs, running from attack dogs, flunking at studies, and eventually returning home chastened to his master after his pointless cult dissolves, Burnellus the donkey is totally the Klaus of the speculum universe.
The most popular surviving speculum texts seem to be the Specula Pricipum, literally the “Mirror for Princes.” This genre of writings was the main method of disseminating political theories of the time. The documents attempted to convince monarchs (who had always had absolute power) that maybe they should think of their republic as an offshoot of themselves, and accept their own intrinsic duty to lead and care for it magnanimously. With the populace thus humanized, rulers hopefully considered democratic solutions more often and did less flippant murderin’ overall. Of course, like almost all political writings, the supposedly educational “reflective” material guided the reader to the obvious conclusion suiting the author’s agenda. This controversial media reaches its zenith in Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince. This particular speculum is the reason we still use the term “Machiavellian” to brand politicians as unscrupulous and tyrannical.
The medical speculum
It wasn’t until around the dawn of the Modern Age in the late 16th century that the word was first ascribed to a medical device. Specifically, a medical speculum is an “instrument for rendering a part accessible to observation.” Different models allow for viewing the inside of at least 4 different types of flesh windows. You know the duck bills on the speculum used for spelunking the mossy cleft? Those are technically called “blades,” yikes.
Wait, it gets gother: the type of speculum used to examine an adult’s party taco is called the Graves speculum. This is really starting to sound like a vampire flick. Next time you visit the gynecologist, may I suggest specifically referencing these things by name in the creepiest way you can think of. Extra points for delivering deft puns and amusing feminist monologues throughout the whole problematic procedure.
So can “spectrophilia” also mean a fetish for speculums?
Perhaps, but let’s keep out of that rabbit hole. If you’re like me, I’m sure you’re mainly wondering how the etymology of “speculum” relates to the word “specter”? Well, spectrum, a Latin word closely related to speculum, means “appearance”. From there, it was just a hop, skip and a jump to a meaning like “apparition.”
Or was it?
By some accounts, Epicurean philosopher Catius first used the Latin word spectrum as a novel translation of the Greek philosophical term εἴδωλον (eídōlon, “image”). Renaissance humanist authors apparently noticed that the Greek word eídōlon also means “apparition” or “phantom.” Writers started using the Latin spectrum thusly. The French disdain for consonants turned spectrum into spectre. English adopted both terms separately; “spectre” from French and “spectrum” from Latin. This is probably because later in the 16th century, the Latin word spectrum was finally applied to things like the visible range of colors. That’s when “spectrum” gained its current common usage in modern English. Specter was then re-adopted from the French to specifically mean “apparition.” Especially in the scary ghost sense of the word. In the US we spell it “specter” because Webster of dictionary fame switched the last 2 letters in his lifelong tirade against words that end in “-re.”
The main question I have after reading all this fascinating information about the etymology of the word “speculum” is simple. Will we someday create a medical speculum powerful enough to open up a man and actually view his specter while he’s alive?
…wasn’t that what everyone was thinking?
Because if we do, that’ll surely be a spooky day.
Cover photo by petr sidorov on Unsplash