For a little while, I went down the path of  "opacity: 0.5;" but
quickly found that nothing could be done to reverse the effect for
children of the object - they all went wishy washy too!

That is the expected behaviour. opacity [1] applies to the whole box (and its descendants), it is _not_ about making the background transparent/translucent. What you want in that case is using rgba() or hsla() colours [2]. rgba() is supported by Safari and I think Konqueror (can't test on my set up). hsla() is supported by Webkit, I think by Konqueror, and by nightly builds of Gecko.

actually I've been having problems with opacity with text too... fine in Firefox but IE doesn't seem to recognise it.

IE doesn't support the opacity property. It only supports a proprietary property

[1] <>
[2] <>

Philippe Wittenbergh

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