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Herschel's Words

Herschel's Words

Sir John Herschel was a great coiner of words, and the invention or first use of several key terms in photography are commonly attributed to him - including negative and positive in their photographic sense, actino- as a scientific prefix and family of words signifying radiation that affects chemicals, and even the word photograph itself. He also of course coined names for the photographic processes he invented, such as cyanotype and chrysotype. We see this process actually taking place in a manuscript note dating from 1842-43 (91957), where he jots down three 'type' type terms - Cryptotype, Calyptotype, and Lanthanotype. Since the Greek first elements mean secret, covered, and hidden respectively, he obviously had in mind the latent-image photographs brought out by vapour (or by breathing on them), which he termed 'dormant pictures' in an 1843 publication.

In packet 29 containing specimens of his experimental photogenic drawings made with plant juices is a slip of paper (23362) on which Herschel has written 'Phytotype (vegetable colours)'. The packet itself (60488) is inscribed 'Vegetable Photographs', and this was also the term he used in his 1842 publication on the process. Whether 'Phytotype' was an afterthought, or whether he refrained from proposing a technical term because of his conclusion that the process was not viable (and would therefore not need a name), we do not know. In the twentieth century, honouring Herschel's note and judgement, the word has been adopted and used in the Museum. He was always fastidiously correct in his scientific language, chosing phyto- (plant) because it was already in established use as a scientific prefix. Other writers describing Herschel's experiments dubbed them 'anthotypes', from antho- (flower), and historians of photography now commonly use that term. Neither word is at present (2010) in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Similarly with 'Amphitype', used in the annotation of a wrapper (91242) and in an 1844 publication, the process appears to be essentially the same as that termed 'Mercurial Photographs' on another wrapper and in a note contained within it (30634 and 65918). The invention was based on mercury salts, and like the phytotype was chemically interesting and very attractive, but not preservable or perfectible as a practical process. The Greek prefix amphi- means of both kinds (the process could be manipulated so as to turn what started as a negative into a positive), though it could also mean ambiguous. The term was indeed ambiguous, since other early photographers used it for a different process altogether. Herschel may even have meant it playfully, since of course the word 'mercurial' in common parlance is used to mean fickle or volatile. The mercury-based photographs were just that, rapidly fading to the barely discernible images now preserved.

Taking a stricter view of such coinages than Talbot, Herschel was not happy with the quaint term photogenic drawing. As well as being an awkward hybrid, it was not susceptible to the grammatical extrapolations that would be required of it - the verb for instance would have to be to photogenically draw (or rather to draw photogenically). Other people are claimed as having first used the natural Greek compound photograph, light drawing; but what is more important than priority is that Herschel used it consistently and insistantly from the outset, privately and in print, and Herschel was the most influential and respected scientist in Britain. As early as February 1839 he was using photograph as a noun and a verb, as well as the adjective photographic; photographer and photography naturally and rapidly follow.

Some of the earliest handwritten examples that exist of this momentous new word occur in Herschel's annotations to his experimental photogenic drawings, the earliest being February 15 (16953). The frustrating thing about these inscriptions however is that he already abbreviates the word. Photographs in full as well as 'Photogs' is found on the wrappers containing his 1839 experiments, but although they are contemporary they cannot be exactly dated. The dated inscriptions on the experimental photographs themselves are usually 'J.F.W.H. Photog' or 'J.F.W.H. Photogr', and since Herschel signed his earlier camera lucida drawings along the lines 'J.F.W. Herschel delin' (the traditional graphic artist's abbreviation for delineavit, meaning drew) it can be assumed that he was thinking of 'Photog(r)' as a verb; though reading it as photographer is a natural temptation. The abbreviation 'Phot' also occurs (for example 18477, February 17).

The form photography was established in the scientific literature by Herschel's first published paper on the subject, entitled "Note on the Art of Photography ...", published later in 1839. Robert Hunt was among those who followed his lead, preferring 'Photographic Drawing' to Talbot's photogenic as early as his 1839 instruction leaflet (86717; see narrative). And credit should probably be given to Hunt for ensuring the triumph of Herschel's 'photograph' family of words through his famous book, the first textbook of the new technique, published in 1841 under the title A Popular Treatise on the Art of Photography.

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