Transparent, translucent and opaque

Transparent, translucent and opaque are adjectives that describe the amount of light that is able to pass through an object. Transparent, translucent and opaque may be used in the literal sense or figurative sense.

Transparent is an adjective that describes material that allows objects behind it to be seen clearly. Glass windows are transparent. Transparent may also mean easy to spot or detect.  Related words are transparently, transparency and transparentness.

Translucent is an adjective that describes material through which one may see an object, but may not be able to discern the details. Translucent may also be described as semitransparent. Sautéed onions are translucent. Related words are translucence, translucency and translucently.

Opaque is an adjective that describes material that one may not see through, it is not transparent. A brick is opaque. Related words are opaquely and opaqueness.


Community and religious leaders are demanding a transparent investigation into the death of Sandra Bland, the Illinois woman who was found dead in her Texas jail cell. (The Dallas Sun-Times)

And they call for 60 percent transparent glass on building facades fronting the roadways. (The Kansas City Star)

The strain of dulse they came up with, which looks like translucent red lettuce, is a great source of minerals, vitamins and antioxidants, not to mention protein. (The Daily Astorian)

They will, of course, provide life’s necessities and amenities on-site: micro kitchens, rooftop gardens, translucent roofs, bike paths, restaurants. (The Washington Post)

To date, strategy and performance amongthe executive branch of government has been somewhat opaque. (The Brisbane Times)

But in the largelyopaque process of choosing the secretary-general, the five permanent members of the Security Council, including the United States, have the real power. (The Miami Herald)

The bright green boat, freshly painted, rode high on the opaque water. (National Geographic)

4 thoughts on “Transparent, translucent and opaque”

  1. Of the three, only translucent might have adjective modifiers. Grainy or pearly translucence might cause the listener/reader to envision a difference. But not so with transparent. Any modifier breaks its left-most totem on the continuüm of opacity. Saying “it was a milky transparent film” is just inaccurate: the film is translucent. And milky in texture. Likewise it makes no sense to have modifiers before opaque or opacity: “the brick wall was coldly and insensitively opaque” mmmm… not even poetic license gets away with that malaprop.

    Transparency is a continuüm. The “left” is an idea, perfect transparency. Perfection – or dâmned close – requires few modifiers. Same for the other end, near-perfect opacity. The only real “gotcha” is to find a word different from translucent that all by itself describes the specular transparency of dark sunglasses. They’re not pragmatically translucent, as they only darken the rays that pass thru, not scatter them like waxed paper does. There are words in Arabic and Persian for the difference, but I’m afraid we English just don’t have a term.

    Eskimos and their 37 types of snow.


    • Quibble: Consider: “It was barely transparent.” Do you really consider that an oxymoron? See, e.g., ‘American Medicine’ (1912): “For this purpose, we do not use the Loeffler’s alkaline solution, but a concentrated alcoholic stain which has been diluted with distilled water until it is barely transparent, and filtered” or Baird’s Canadian cookbook (1995 edition):”aute 3-4 minutes or until the onions are barely transparent.”

      Or, more common, “Completely opaque”: “This is true if the glass is either completely transparent or completely opaque. For the sake of generality, both possibilities shall exist simultaneously, i.e. the glass shall be completely transparent for one part of the electromagnetic spectrum and …” in ‘Thermal Conductivity’ (1999).

      Also, see D. A. Cruse, ‘Lexical Semantics’: “We have located the decisive break in semantic character between “fully transparent” and “to some degree opaque”, rather than between “completely opaque” and “not completely opaque” ….”

  2. The only comment I wish to add is that I am tired and dismayed by the constant use these days of “transparent” in political and governmental speech. Let’s come up with something else. Like “honest” and “open”. But these terms have lost their real meanings as well in the politico-government world. Most of what we see and hear is about as transparent as tapioca pudding. It can have a certain translucence.


Leave a Comment