Cucoloris: A screen with oddly shaped holes cut through it, placed before a light source to throw diverse shadows on an otherwise uniform surface. (Source: Idiom Savant: Slang As It Is Slung.) Also spelled cucaloris, kookaloris, kukaloris, cookaloris, cucalorus, etc. Shortened to cookie, kook, or cuke. Alternate names: gobo, ulcer, dapple sheet.
Wooden cucoloris, B&H Photo and Video, New York.
Popular in the 1930s; back in style again with the movies of Steven Spielberg, who uses a kookalouris with underlighting to show faces that seem to be illuminated by reflections from pots of gold, buckets of diamonds, pools of fire, pirate maps, and radioactive kidneys.
(Read more of Ebert’s movie tropes, including Inevitable Sister, Mid-Wife Crisis, Wunza Movies, and “Fruit Cart!”, in an excerpt published in the Visual Thesaurus. And scroll down for more on Ebert.)
It’s fairly well established that cucoloris, however you spell it, comes from the world of Hollywood cinematographers. Beyond that, however, the word’s origins and etymology are frustratingly unclear. In an episode that aired last year, Grant Barrett, co-host of the radio show “A Way with Words,” told listeners that he’d spent “days” researching a Double-Tongued Dictionary entry for cookie.
“Hollywood is filled with people who like to invent myth,” Barrett said. “I counted seven different origin stories for this term, and they’re fun, but they’re throwaway.” The best story he encountered is from a footnote in a 1954 issue of the Western Folklore journal, which called cucoloris “a coined word of no special philological significance or implication.” The writer did suggest, however, that cucoloris “might be related to the famed director George Cukor.”
Barrett’s etymological note for the cookie entry doesn’t mention Cukor, but it doesn’t reach any other satisfying conclusions, either:
A claimed etymology is that kukaloris is Greek for “breaking of light,” but there seems to be no evidence to support this, nor can the etymological claims in the 2001 cite below* be verified. Another claim is that it is named after its inventor, a Mr. Cucoloris; however, this, too, lacks supporting evidence.
* The word “cucaloris” comes from the Greek for shadow play.» —by Ivan Curry Directing & Producing for Television Nov. 29, 2001.
Nor is there evidence to support the assertion in TV Tropes:
The word cukoloris is Gaelic and means “ghost charm.” How a Gaelic word became a standard term in film production is unknown.
A note about Roger Ebert: I never met or corresponded with him, but I was among his many admiring readers and Twitter followers—even when I was muttering “WTF?” about his conclusions. In 2010, I attended a program at the San Francisco International Film Festival at which he received an award; cancer had already taken away his ability to talk, but his impish wit and pointed opinions suffered not a bit from the intervention of a speech synthesizer. After answering questions from the stage of the Castro Theater, he introduced Julia, which starred Tilda Swinton – “Saint Tilda,” Ebert called her – and which Ebert assured us was a great, great film we were privileged to see. (Released in 2009, it had been largely ignored by theaters.) Now, I grant that Swinton is never less than fully committed to a role, but Julia was godawful: violent, amoral, ugly, pointless, and, at 144 minutes, seemingly interminable. About a third of the audience left before it was over. I stuck it out, but – to borrow a phrase Ebert himself made famous – I hated, hated, hated this movie. And yet I loved Ebert for championing it, and for being not just a critic but also an exuberant fan. I will miss him a lot.