Monday, November 13, 2006

You Are My Sunshine

Sunbeam is a warm, comfort-filled word, but quirky nonetheless. It is, of course, a ray of sunshine, so the sun- segment makes perfect sense, but what about a beam? I associate that with the huge piece of timber used in construction to hold up the roof.

As it turns out, so did the scholar who invented the word. We’re talking about Alfred the Great, famous for building up the storehouse of Old English literature by translating books from Latin.

While he was translating Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), he kept bumping up against the image columna lucis, rendered as “column of light” in modern English. Old English did not contain the word column, so Alfred reached for the nearest reality in his day: bêam, a tree or building post.

So a sunbeam was a sun post was a columna lucis.

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