I was inspired to write this post by my own experience of make-up just recently. You can read about it on my friend Lynn Schreiber’s blog Salt and Caramel, where she has kindly hosted my article.
What does cosmetic mean?
The Merriam Webster Dictionary tells us:
: used or done in order to improve a person’s appearance
: done in order to make something look better
: not important or meaningful
The Oxford English Dictionary says more or less the same thing. But is this what everyone thinks of the word? And is it generally viewed in a positive or negative way?
I conducted a small internet survey on what people thought of the word. My question was framed like this:
What does the word “cosmetic” make you think of? Immediate reactions? Positive/ negative/ neutral?
I was intrigued by the replies. First of all, the response among women was overwhelmingly negative, with several people saying “fake”. Another popular answer was “artificial”. The majority of the men who responded said “neutral”, with just one person finding it negative. Two answered “products for women”.
The least common reaction was positive, with neutral coming in second after negative. I did not specify in my question whether the word should be an adjective or a noun, nor did I give any context, so these are simply reactions to the word itself.
Let’s take a look at the responses. Some people answered with just one word – positive, negative or neutral, while others included other comments. Still others stated what they associated the word with without saying whether it was positive or negative.
Reaction Number of Responses*
Negative or Positive 2
Neutral towards Negative 6
Neutral towards Positive 3
Word association Number of Responses*
fake/ fakery 8
specific product (moisturiser, perfume) 3
make-up, beauty products 13
products for women 2
covering a flaw 4
surface alterations 1
cosmetic work on house 1
range of meanings 3
to do with appearance in general 3
of no consequence 1
* The numbers in the two charts are not the same, as firstly not everyone stated whether it was positive or negative, secondly, some of the respondents made more than one association, eg “make-up, artificial”. To clarify: there were 57 responses in total. I realise that the sample size is relatively small, but I think it is worth noting that the word produces a negative association so frequently.
Two responses deserve their own special mention:
“cosmetic repairs infer either not much work needs doing, or that someone has hidden bigger problems.“
and less succinct, but interesting in that it was all inspired by one single word:
“Superfluous, living in a vacuum, substitution, fix it, fake, unreality, open your eyes, wake up, make up.“
So where does the word come from? It is quite an easy word to trace. It comes into English through French, from a Latinised form of a Greek word: κοσμητική (τέχνη) [kosmitiki (techni)], meaning “the art of arrangement”, presumably arranging the decoration of someone or something. It comes from κοσμέω [kosmeo], which meant “to arrange, order”, from κόσμος [kosmos], which meant “order”. Interestingly, the word is used in Modern Greek today to mean “world” and, in a more general sense, “people”.