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Gobo

Pronounced /ˈɡəʊbəʊ/Help with pronunciation

This word is common in theatre, film, and television but appears here because it looks so odd and unEnglish. It is most often used by lighting technicians to refer to a metal plate with a pattern of holes in it, which is placed in the gate of a spotlight to produce an image or outline on the set. More sophisticated gobos rotate to create moving patterns; some are of glass with complex coloured patterns on them.

The word can also be used for a fabric or wood shape placed in front of a light to cast a shadow (in some circles in the US this is called a cookie or a flag instead). But it can also have other senses that relate to some sort of mask: perhaps a shield used to shelter a microphone from extraneous noise or to acoustically separate groups of instruments in an orchestra, or a screen used to shield a lens from light.

It has nothing to do with the Japanese vegetable of the same name — its origin is somewhat obscure, but it’s most probably just a condensed version of go between.

Another name for certain types is cucoloris. This is the usual name for a large perforated gobo placed in front of a lamp to project a diffused shadow pattern. It would seem to be the origin of the abbreviated form cookie that I mentioned above (if so, the latter would have no biscuit links). But where does cucoloris come from? My sources are totally silent on the matter — no dictionary I’ve consulted has even heard of the word, not even the big Oxford English Dictionary. Could it be from Latin cucullus for a hood or cowl?

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Oct. 2002

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-gob2.htm
Last modified: 5 October 2002.