Sunday, May 16, 2021

cameo and kamea

I was recently asked if there is a connection between the English word "cameo" and the Hebrew word קמיע kamea - "amulet." 

If that seems like a strange suggestion, perhaps you aren't familiar with the background of "cameo." While today it usually means "a small theatrical role usually performed by a well-known actor and often limited to a single scene," that's not the original sense. (Modern Hebrew also has hofa'at kamea הופעת קמע meaning a "cameo appearance, but that is a much more recent usage.) The original sense can be found in this entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary:

early 15c., kaadmaheu, camew, chamehieux and many other spellings (from early 13c. in Anglo-Latin), "engraving in relief upon a precious stone with two layers of colors" (such as onyx, agate, or shell) and done so as to utilize the effect of the colors, from Old French camaieu and directly from Medieval Latin cammaeus, which is of unknown origin, perhaps ultimately from Arabic qamaa'il "flower buds," or Persian chumahan "agate."

In 19c. also used of other raised, carved work on a miniature scale. Transferred sense of "small character or part that stands out from other minor parts" in a play, etc., is from 1928, from earlier meaning "short literary sketch or portrait" (1851), a transferred sense from cameo silhouettes. A cameotype (1864) was a small, vignette daguerreotype mounted in a jeweled setting.

Since cameo originally meant a type of jewelry, that's much closer to the sense of "amulet." Yet, none of the suggestions mentioned in this entry can be connected to kamea. (I haven't been able to find any Hebrew cognate to the qamaa'il referenced above. In fact, the claims is disputed entirely in this article, saying that qamaa'il is not found in Arabic dictionaries.)

However, that doesn't mean a connection isn't possible. Let's first look at the origin of kamea, to see if it can bring us closer to cameo. (Ben Yehuda points out that the original pronunciation was kamia, but the transition to kamea may have been from the Italian "cameo.") Here's Klein's entry:

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