Image caption Cosmetic can describe something superficial or only on the surface

This is News Words, from the BBC. In this series we look at the meaning of words you might often hear in the news. We’ve asked BBC journalist Clare Arthurs to help us explain each word, and give us some examples of how it might be used.

Today’s word is ‘cosmetic’.

We’ll hear two main uses of this word – one relates to making yourself look attractive, and one describes something which is superficial or not as important as it may seem.

Newswords from the BBC - Clare Arthurs looks at the word ‘cosmetic’

What do you think of people who have surgery to change the shape of their eyes or nose? It’s quite common in some places, isn’t it? The surgery is cosmetic; it’s intended to change the way a person looks or appears. It’s known as cosmetic surgery or plastic surgery.

China had a beauty competition or pageant for women who had fake or artificial changes to their bodies. Here’s what one of the women said.

My eyes were too small and my nose was too flat. I don't feel fake. This is what I should have looked like.

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Women also paint their faces to change their looks. So do some men, and most actors. The powder and paint they use are products known as cosmetics.

Promoting them is a job for advertising. In the news, we talk about the issues that surround them. For example, the cultural changes they reflect. Or surprises, like this introduction to a story.

How much do you spend on cosmetics and beauty treatments? The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, spends an average of one hundred and eighty-seven Euro a day on making himself look good for the cameras.

A more controversial story follows the debate on using animals for research. You’ll hear terms like animal welfare, animal liberation, campaign, laboratory, and farm.

Although some cosmetic reforms were introduced in 1983 allowing the Asian and mixed race communities into parliament Mr Botha made no headway in terms of advancing political reform.

Here’s a news story where an Israeli woman was speaking about a Palestinian. She’s not talking about cosmetics. So what does she mean?

“I am not impressed with him. He is a terrorist with a suit. So I don't see any great change with this man, I think it's all cosmetic, there is not going to be any peace with the Arabs.”

Here’s another example, where the word cosmetic is used to indicate change only on the surface, superficial change rather than something real.

The elections are part of a cautious programme of reform introduced by the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah. But critics say the changes are cosmetic.

Cosmetic can be a difficult term to use in the news which aims to be objective. Because calling something cosmetic is often an opinion, it’s subjective. Now, can cosmetics make a cosmetic change? Indeed, they can and they do. So how much lipstick does it make to change a government?

Newswords from the BBC

So we heard two uses of the word ‘cosmetic’ there. Another word for the kind of cosmetics used to make people more attractive is ‘make-up’. This includes things like lipstick, mascara, blusher and so on. ‘Make-up’ is a more common word in everyday English, but in a formal setting such as the news, ‘cosmetics’ is more likely to be used.

As Clare pointed out, one of the areas where the news may focus on the cosmetics industry, is the area of animal testing. Many people feel strongly that cosmetics should not be tested on animals, and as a result, cosmetics laboratories are sometimes targeted by animal welfare activists – people who are protesting about what they see as cruelty to the animals.

So, no matter what the context, the word cosmetic always means something only on the surface.

Today’s Newsword was ‘cosmetic’.