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I have read that a looking glass is a surface with sufficient reflection to form an image of an object... doesn't that sound like a mirror?

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closed as general reference by MετάEd, Matt E. Эллен, aedia λ, Kristina Lopez, tchrist Apr 27 '13 at 8:28

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

looking glass, mirror. These are the respective definitions for the words in question. Please read them and edit your question to further explain any misunderstanding you have. – Matt E. Эллен Apr 26 '13 at 7:56
This is yet another instance where a question is, at one level, general reference and, at another, not. In common usage today (according to standard dictionaries) the terms are interchangeable; but historically mirror was a broader term, as my answer below attempts to document. – Sven Yargs Jun 23 at 13:34

There is no difference. "Looking glass" is a poetic and archaic way to refer to a mirror.

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Looking glass was considered the 'proper' word to use when referring to what we now would all call a mirror. The word mirror was considered vulgar and middle-class by the upper classes. Some upper class people will still say looking glass instead of mirror. The word glass on its own also often refers to mirrors rather than glass. Hence pier glass, or 'go and look in the glass'.

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+1: Here is some corroboration for your answer. This page indeed says that looking glass was considered the 'proper' word (although only in the U.K.). – Peter Shor Apr 24 '13 at 15:25
I would also like to further note that "looking glass" is far more common in the UK (and specifically England), as I have not heard anyone use the term in the US regardless of region or class (though I do not generally break bread with the upper crust, so perhaps it is not unheard of). I think if not for Lewis Carroll far fewer Americans would even have ever heard the term. +1 to you both. – BrianDHall Apr 24 '13 at 17:12

When Perseus slays Medusa, he does so without looking directly at her, instead using his highly polished shield as a mirror. This sense of mirror is reflected (so to speak) in the first definition of the term in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

mirror 1: a polished or smooth surface (as of glass) that forms images for reflection

But would it be correct to say that Perseus used his shield as a looking glass? The underlying question here is, How literally should we take the component "glass" in the term looking glass? If looking glasses must be made, in part, of glass, then a metal shield can't be a looking glass, though it can be a mirror.

The Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary isn't especially helpful on this point, as it defines looking glass simply as "MIRROR." Earlier dictionaries, however, don't treat the two terms as identical.

One of the clearest treatments of the differences between mirror and looking-glass appears in Merriam-Webster's [First] International Dictionary of the English Language (1890), which provides distinct definitions for three related terms:

Looking-glass A mirror made of glass on which has been placed a backing of some reflecting substance, as quicksilver.

Mirror A looking-glass or a speculum; any glass or polished substance that forms images by the reflection of rays of light.

Speculum 1. A mirror, or looking-glass; especially a metal mirror, as in Greek and Roman archaeology. 2. A reflector of polished metal, especially one used in reflecting telescopes. ...

From these definitions, it appears that (late in the nineteenth century, anyway) Perseus's shield would have qualified as both a mirror and a speculum, but not as a looking-glass.

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The difference between looking glass and mirror is that looking glass, when used as adjective, means being or involving the opposite of what is normal or expected (a looking-glass land, looking-glass logic); mirror can also be figuratively used to mean something regarded as accurately representing something else (the stage is supposed to be the mirror of life).

[Reference: the New Oxford American Dictionary.]

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I don't know if I've ever encountered looking glass as an adjective. – Marthaª Feb 18 '11 at 0:21
I have, but it has always been an allusion to the world Lewis Carol created, where things are different ways than just being reversed left-to-right. It's not unlike telling folks that they are no longer in Kansas. – bye Feb 18 '11 at 13:25
@Marthaª: From "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds": "Picture yourself on a train in a station/With plasticine porters with looking glass ties/Suddenly someone is there at the turnstile/The girl with kaleidoscope eyes." – Sven Yargs Jun 23 at 13:27

A looking glass is indeed a mirror. As @JSBangs alluded to, it is only largely used in literary contexts. Two notable examples (book titles) are:

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The page you link to mentions a difference in attributive use. – msh210 Feb 18 '11 at 0:11
@msh210: Yes I know, but the asker specifically refers to the noun case. – Jimi Oke Feb 18 '11 at 0:36
So, the obvious difference is that you can't go into or through a mirror :) – Benjol Feb 18 '11 at 8:25

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