Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cosmetic, cosmos

I wondered last night in a conversation with friends: could cosmetic and cosmos be related? Yes, they could be, and are. The Oxford English Dictionary traces both back to the Greek κόσμος, kosmos, meaning “order, ornament, world or universe,” “so called by Pythagoras or his disciples,“ says the OED, “‘from its perfect order and arrangement.’”

Stranger than strange: the first citations for cosmetic and cosmos come from the same source, John Bulwer’s Anthropometamorphosis (1650): “Which damnable portion of cosmetique Art”; “As the greater World is called Cosmus from the beauty thereof.” The OED identifies Bulwer as a “medical practitioner and writer on deafness and on gesture.” A Wikipedia article notes that Bulwer was “the first person in England to propose educating deaf people.”

The mishaps I can imagine resulting from the similarity between cosmetic and cosmos — say, someone wanting to study cosmetology and wondering where all the telescopes went — probably have little relation to reality.

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