Q&A: ‘Pupil’, ‘iris’, ‘retina’… – exploring the eye

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, the naked eye is…

Q: Hi AWC, I have a question about eyes.

A: You probably should see an optometrist, not an etymologist.

Q: No, it’s about the names we give for the parts of the eyes. I’m always getting confused about which is what and what they all do. Can you help?

A: Eye eye, captain!

Q: Not your best joke.

A: Sorry.

Q: For starters, what’s a “pupil”?

A: Well, initially it was a student in a classroom – first arriving into English in the late 1300s, from the Latin pupillus meaning “child or minor”. By the way, the female Latin version was pupilla – and that’s going to be important.

Q: Oooh, I love a good bit of foreshadowing!

A: Because it was this pupilla that became the name for a “little girl-doll“. It would quickly go through the Old French wringer and emerge in the early 15th century as pupille and then “pupil” to mean “the centre of the eye, orifice of the iris”.

Q: Wait, did we miss a step? From doll to centre of the eye? 

A: The reason this name was given was because if you looked in someone’s pupil, you could see the tiny image of yourself reflected – like a baby doll. And for a time “baby” actually held this meaning – “a small image of oneself reflected in another’s pupil”. 

Q: Whoa, how bizarre!

A: It’s what gave us the now-rare expression “to look babies” at each other – when lovers see themselves in each other’s eyes. The more common “apple of one’s eye” has a similar loving meaning, but is much older – dating back to the 9th century, when people thought the pupil was simply a sphere (like an apple) rather than an aperture letting in light.

Q: Okay, so you mentioned the pupil being the “orifice of the iris” – so can we do “iris” now?

A: Sure. It’s a natural progression, as it’s the muscles of the iris doing the heavy lifting, so to speak, in changing the shape of your pupil.

Q: So when someone’s pupils are dilated, the iris did that?

A: Yep. It controls the eye automatically without you having to actively think about doing so. This is called the “pupillary light reflex”.

Q: Fancy!

A: It’s quite impressive, yes.

Q: So the iris – that’s the coloured bit, yeah?

A: It is, with the black pupil in the centre. The word “iris” comes from Greek – in fact, the god Iris was a messenger, effectively Hera’s personal assistant in Olympian mythology. The ancient text, The Iliad, used the word to mean both “messenger” and “rainbow” – the latter helping give colour to the flowering plant in the late 1300s. The eye part was named in the early 15th century – at the same time the pupil was getting named.

Q: So a word meaning rainbow gave us the word for all our different coloured eyes. That’s pretty cool. But what about the 1998 song ‘Iris’ by the Goo Goo Dolls?

A: What about it?

Q: How did it get the name “Iris”? It’s not mentioned in the lyrics AT ALL!

A: Haha, a little off topic, but sure. According to band frontman Johnny Rzeznik, he’d written the song and just needed a name for it. He always struggled with naming songs, so was flipping through a magazine, saw that an artist named Iris DeMent was in town – and he liked the name!

Q: How random. Okay, next eye part please! What’s the white bit called?

A: Good question. The actual name for it is the “sclera” – from the Greek word for ‘hard membrane’ – although it’s usually written about as ‘the whites of her eyes’ for literary effect. By the way, humans are one of few species that do show the whites of their eyes – with the sclera often either hidden or a different colour in other animals.

Q: Fascinating!

A: Despite the sclera covering about 80% of the eyeball, the eyelids of most people only allow the white to show on either side of the iris. However, the Japanese also have a term for eyes where you can see the sclera above or below the iris – ‘sanpaku’ eyes. 

Q: Any famous examples?

A: Oh, plenty! Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, JFK and Billie Eilish.

Q: Billie eyelash?

A: Haha, no. But speaking of your jokes getting cornier, we arrive now at the “cornea” of the eye.

Q: Oh ha ha.

A: The cornea is the transparent cover that sits over your pupil and handles most of your focussing. Without it, things get blurry.

Q: And I don’t want the world to see me. Cause I don’t think that they’d understand. When everything’s made to be broken…

A: Are you singing Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls?

Q: Maybe. Ahem. Please continue.

A: Okay, well the word “cornea” comes from the Latin cornea tela for “horny sheath” and before that, Latin cornu for “horn”. 

Q: So it’s all about looking horny?

A: Indeed. You can blame the Greeks (whose word for horn was karnon – later giving us “keratin”), as they thought this part of the eye resembled the thin part of an animal’s horn. 

Q: Okay, so my computer says it has a “retina” display. Where does the retina come into all this?

A: Good question. For this, we go right inside the eye, to where the optic nerves connect to the brain. The “retina” is the layer of receptor cells that capture all the photons of light coming in through the eye via the lens – which sits just in behind the pupil – and transmits them to the brain to create a picture with.

Q: So, it’s rather important, yes?

A: It certainly is.

Q: Can we see the retina?

A: Not easily, but an eye doctor can use an ophthalmoscope to see it. By the way, the word “retina” comes from the Latin rete for “net” – for the netlike structure of blood vessels here. And the term “blind spot” relates to a point on the retina that is insensitive to light. It got this medical term by the 1870s, and the figurative term “blind spot” followed around 1907.

Q: Well, I spy with my little eye the end of this chat. Thanks for the eye-opening explanations. 

A: No problem. Another time, we’ll have to explore all the many idioms with “eye” in them.

Q: I’ll keep my eye out for that one!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!


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