What is the meaning of the word ‘panopticon’?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: panopticon….

I’m a big believer in the relationship between writing and music. For that reason, a piece in the New York Times on the art of jazz piano recently grabbed my attention.

Under the headline, Piano Lessons in the Panopticon,” writer Elias Muhanna — a teacher of literature at Brown University — drew my attention to an unusual word, panopticon.

Here’s how Muhanna used it:

Two worlds had collided, and I was stuck between them. The pressure of an old-fashioned piano lesson was poised to be magnified by the panopticon of the internet.

Essentially, a panopticon is a type of institutional building designed to allow all inmates to be observed by a single watchman without the inmates being able to tell whether or not they are being watched. (The photo at the top of this post shows the inside one of the prison buildings at Presidio Modelo in Cuba.) Of course it’s just not possible for a single watchman to see all cells at once. But because inmates don’t know when they are being watched, they must behave as though they’re being watched all the time. The concept for the building was created by Jeremy Bentham in 1791.

The etymology of the word is particularly interesting. It comes  from Greek pan meaning “all” and  optikon, meaning “of or for sight” (the same root for the better-known word, optic.) But it’s also a reference to the Greek mythological character, Panoptes — a giant with a hundred eyes. Because only a few of the eyes would sleep at a time, there were always eyes still awake, allowing the character to be a spectacularly effective watchman.

I find that name to be simultaneously evocative and slightly creepy.

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