1. a type of small lizard with skin that changes colour to match the colours around it
2. someone who changes their opinions, ideas, or behaviour to fit any situation
Origin and usage
Chameleon comes from the Greek word ‘khamai’ meaning ‘on the ground, earth’ and ‘leon’ meaning ‘lion’. It is believed that the large crest on the head of some chameleon species was thought to resemble a lion’s mane, thus giving the small reptile its name. Chameleon first appeared in English in the mid-14th century, and its use to describe a person who easily changes his or her mind is from the 1580s.
The word chameleon is a noun that refers to a kind of small lizard with large, bulging eyes and a long tail. The most striking feature of a chameleon is its ability to change the colour of its skin to match its surroundings.
A chameleon actually has four layers of skin which contain different pigments, allowing it to create a range of colours and patterns. While a chameleon can’t change its skin to match a red-striped tablecloth or a yellow polka-dot blanket, these lizards are able to mimic some colours, like brown, yellow and black, while they can also reflect other colours away, like blue and white. Through a series of nerve impulses and hormone changes, a chameleon can activate these different layers of skin to help it blend into its environment.
Most chameleons can be found in the wild in Africa, Madagascar and the Middle East. One chameleon species is native to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, while another species can be found in Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean.
Chameleons are also commonly found in zoos around the world and some people keep them as pets, but most experts agree that these lizards do not often thrive as domestic companions.
View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.
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