The Grammarphobia Blog

Through the looking glass

Q: Please comment on the much-used term “transparent.” It has crept out of the political dialogue into general usage. Most people who use the word to mean frank or open are in fact more opaque than transparent. In fact, they’re about as transparent as jabberwocky.

A: I agree with you that many of the people who use “transparent” to refer to openness or frankness probably aren’t all that open or frank themselves! But I wouldn’t go so far as to compare them to the Jubjub bird or the frumious Bandersnatch.

Although the adjective “transparent” may sound modern to many ears, it’s actually been around for quite some time. The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1413.

The word initially meant (and still does mean) capable of transmitting light and being easily seen through, but the metaphoric use of “transparent” for candid or open is pretty old too. In fact, the OED’s first citation is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590):

Transparent Helena, nature shews art,
That through thy bosome makes me see thy heart.

To be honest, I haven’t noticed a huge surge in the use (or abuse) of “transparent.” But now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll probably start seeing and hearing it everywhere.

Meanwhile, have a frabjous day!

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