It’s time to feed your inner nerd.
Now that Chanukah (or is it Hannukah, or Hannukkaahh?!), is upon us, a lot of candles are being lit. Even those who don’t celebrate the Festival of Lights are lighting candles and luminaria—there’s just something about the winter holidays that sends us into a lighting frenzy.
This got me to thinking about light, and that got me to thinking about dictionaries. Yeah, I know, that seems like a weird connection, but there is a connection—in a geeky sort of way.
We take all those stuffy dictionary definitions for granted, but some of them were really, really hard to come up with. One of the most notoriously difficult definitions was for light. Samuel Johnson wrote the first general English dictionary, published in 1755. When he got to light, he complained to his friend Boswell: “We all know what light is, but it is not easy to tell what it is.”
Think about it for a second and see how you’d describe it. Time’s up.
When I tried it myself, I kind of vaguely thought of it as “that stuff that comes from the sun that lets us see other stuff.” As it turns out, that’s not too far off from what Johnson eventually came up with as a first definition, which was: “that quality or action of the medium of sight by which we see.” For a quotation to back up this meaning, Johnson cited Sir Isaac Newton’s book on Optics, where Newton said that “light is propagated from luminous bodies in time, and spends about seven or eight minutes of an hour in passing from the sun to the earth.”
Today, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines light this way: “ a : something that makes vision possible b : the sensation aroused by stimulation of the visual receptors c : electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength that travels in a vacuum with a speed of about 186,281 miles (300,000 kilometers) per second; specifically : such radiation that is visible to the human eye.”
Fair enough. But there was a second aspect of light that made Johnson’s job even more difficult: we use light as a word not just for the stuff from the sun that illuminates things, but in a lot of other ways, too, with slightly different shades of meaning. Such as a light, like the kind with a lampshade. As a verb, you can light a match. Or better yet, baby, light my fire. But I’m just starting to warm up. Still related to light as in luminous, but heading in a different direction, light is a color word. A dark-skinned woman might say that a pale man has light skin.
We also use light metaphorically—a lot. If I said “you light up my life”, you’d, well, you’d probably throw up, because in the 70’s Debby Boone’s song with that title played over and over and over, year after year after year. But you know what I’m saying. Here’s a slight twist on the same metaphor. In the New Testament Book of Luke, an old man named Simeon, upon seeing Jesus, called him “a light to shine upon the Gentiles”. We can shade this metaphor in other ways, too. When we have a revelation, we might say that the light went on.
But there are other meanings that seem pretty far removed from these, like the way of describing an object’s weight. A rock is heavy, while paper is light. A lightweight: a person with little substance, or a boxer who is not big but can still knock the average man on his butt. Twist the meaning just a little bit, and we can say that a dancer who is nimble is light on her feet. Along the same lines—in the sense of a contrast to heavy—is light beer. When we make light of something, we don’t take it seriously—like light beer.
But wait, there’s more!! Light is a movement word: you can light out for ‘Frisco. When you get there, you might alight from your horse. And…and…many more….
I hope today’s Word Odyssey has shed some light on the hardships of dictionary makers, so that you’ll never take their achievements lightly. Now put a match to a candle and pray for enlightenment.
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