Wednesday, August 19, 2009


Another sign of old age: I can remember a question that someone asked me recently, but not the name of the questioner. If you asked me about the word lamp, you know who you are.

Lamp came into English at the start of the 13th century, when it referred to an oil vessel with a wick used for illumination. It was indebted to the Latin lampas, which, in turn, came from the Greek λαμπειν (lampein), to shine. It wasn’t long before it was connected with scholarship. If a literary composition was the product of obviously laborious study, it was said to “smell of the lamp.” The wonderful word lucubration covers the same territory.

Some wonderfully strange words were based on lamp. Lampadedromy was a race in which a torch was passed from hand to hand. A competitor in such a race was a lampadephore. Lampadomancy was divination which observed the crud left over after a lamp was used. Lampistry was the artistic decoration of lamps. A lampadary was a church warden who lit the lamps and carried a ceremonial taper in processions.

Hidden lamps abound. The adjective elychnious refers to a wick. Lucernal meant pertaining to a lamp; lucernal microscopes came into vogue in the 18th century. In the Greek Church, lychnic is the introductory part of vespers that accompanies the lighting of lamps. Lychnidiate refers to a lampstand and means “giving out light.” A lychnobite is a high-life who turns night into day; he burns the candle at both ends, as it were. An obeliscolychny was a lamp-bearer, and it sometimes referred to a lighthouse. And talk about specialty meanings: a lychnoscope was a low side window that allowed lepers to view the altar lights without exposing others to the risk of infection.

SIDEBAR: How to build a lamp

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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