The glass beans – the origin of “lens”

When lenses first appeared they had a particular shape, a double convex lens, that was very similar to a certain pulse, namely the lentil. The name lens derived from the Latin name for the plant, lens culinaris.

“LENS (Latin , lens, a small bean or lentil). A lens is a piece of transparent material (usually glass) bounded by curved surfaces (generally spherical, including flat).

A.L.M. Sowerby’s Dictionary of Photography (1951) p.407

An English dictionary of the early 18th century [1] describes a lens as related to optics to be a “small concave or convex glass”. By 1768 [2] it was described as “a glass, spherically convex on both sides”.

The word lentil comes from the Old French lentille, which in turn comes from Latin lenticula. When lenses first appeared, they looked like the lentil seed, and likely due to the fact that technical terms were derived from Greek or Latin, simply named them lens. In German, one term used is Linse, but it is more common to use the term Objektiv. The term Linse is from the Old High German linsa, from a Proto-Indo-European root.

  1. Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum, John Kersey (1708)
  2. A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson (1768)

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