• alight •
ê-lait • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Verb
Meaning: 1. Come down from or get off some means of transportation, as to dismount a horse, deplane. 2. Get on something, settle down on something, as a bird alights on a branch
Notes: This word is something of a contranym in that it means both "get off" and "get on". Remember, it is another of the words with silent GH. It is a lexical orphan.
In Play: In the sense of "get off", we might hear something like this: "Several people alighted from the train, but his wife was not among them." In the sense of "get on", we might hear something like this: "Myrtle loved to watch the colorful autumn leaves fall and alight on the still surface of the lake."
Word History: English has a verb light "to start a fire" and an adjective light "not heavy, almost weightless". Alight the adjective comes from the verb, and the verb alight (today's word) comes from the adjective. Alight in Old English was a-lihtan "lighten, get off (of)". Lihtan came via its Germanic ancestors from PIE legwh- "light, having little weight". We see much of this word in Sanskrit laghuh "quick, small", Greek elakhys "small", Lithuanian lengvas "light, easy", and Russian legkii "light". Latin levis "light" is a bit further away from the PIE original word. English lung is a nasalized form of legwh- since lungs are the lightest body organ. In fact, the lungs of animals are called lights in some dialects because their lungs float on water when cleaning their meat. (Now, we owe thanks to Professor Kyu Ho Youm of the University of Oregon, who raised it in a private e-mail conversation we had recently.)
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