Printable Version
Pronunciation: pæ-ri-do-lee-ê Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass

Meaning: The false or mistaken recognition of images in a random pattern, such as seeing images in the shapes of clouds or features of the human face on the moon.

Notes: Do you see faces in this European outlet? Here is a seldom used word that could be very useful to us all. The human brain is organized by categories so, when we see something different, we try to stuff it into one of those preexisting categories. Humans favor animate categories, hence we often see animals and humans in inanimate things. That is what pareidolia is. This word appears in no dictionaries, so it has no reported relatives, though, I suppose, pareidolian we might safely use as an adjective and a noun meaning "someone who sees things that aren't there".

In Play: Who hasn't lain in a grassy field on a bright summer's day, watching puffy white clouds roll by, trying to figure out what each of them looks like? That's pareidolia. However, we may feel free to use the term metaphorically: "Anita Job sees the new boss's arrival as a catastrophe, but Anita suffers from pareidolia and even sees things in clouds that are not there."

Word History: Today's Good Word was made up recently from Ancient Greek para "abnormal, wrong" + eidolon "ghost, apparition". Para comes from the same Proto-Indo-European root that gave us English far and for. See the Indian's face? It has several senses in Greek, but is used here in the sense it has in paranormal. Eidolon comes from Greek eidos "form, shape", the noun from the verb eidon "to see". This verb goes back to the same PIE root that became videre "to see" in Latin, which went into the making of dozens of words that English borrowed, such as video, vision, visit, and view. When it came through Old Germanic, it became wissen "to know" in German and wise and wit in English, no doubt, because of the association of seeing in the sense of the ancient seers, who could see into the future. (Iain Smallwood of Surrey, England, is the seer who saw the intrigue in today's Good Word, so we should thank him for suggesting it in the Alpha Agora.)

Dr. Goodword,

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