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shameless pleading

In light of

 Lighter than ere.

Dear Word Detective:  For many years I have heard people say “In light of…” meaning “considering the circumstances.” How does the word “light” come into play? “Light” can be weight, e.g., “light” as opposed to heavy, or it can be “light” as a “piercing light.” I’m puzzled how it came to be used in this situation. — John Wilson.

That’s an interesting question. There are two kinds of “light” in English, completely unrelated words, both very old. The older of the two is the adjective meaning “not heavy” or “of little weight.” This comes from the prehistoric Germanic root word “lingkhtaz,” which also produced words meaning “light” in several other languages. This “light” first appeared in Old English meaning simply “not heavy,” but by the 16th century was also being used to mean “light in relation to its size” or, in the case of boats, carriages, etc., “capable of bearing only a small load” (e.g., a “light railway,” one not designed to carry heavy traffic). Similarly, “light industry” produces goods from “light” materials and “lightly-armed” troops are not driving tanks. A “light” meal doesn’t make one sleepy, and “light” dinner conversation is cheerful (even “lighthearted”) and avoids stressful topics. Just about anything easy, cheerful, graceful or simple can be described with the adjective “light.”

This “light” is also a verb meaning “make lighter” (i.e., “lighten”), “to dismount, descend  or settle” (as a bird “lights” on a branch), or “to leave, especially casually or abruptly” (as one might “light out” for Las Vegas). Interestingly, this “light” doesn’t really exist as a noun, except in the form “lights,” an antiquated word for “lungs” now used only for those of animals. The lungs of an animal (or human) are the lightest in weight of any major organ, and the word “lung” itself comes from the same root as “light.” The use of “lights” in reference to humans lives on in the colloquial phrase “to scare the livers and lights” out of a person, meaning “to terrify” (“It most scared the livers and lights out of me.” Mark Twain, 1884).

The other kind of “light,” meaning “luminance,” is a noun and verb drawn from the Indo-European root “leuk,” meaning “light,” which also produced the Latin “lux” (light) as well as “lumen” (as in “luminous”), “luna” (moon) and “lustrare” (to shine, source of “luster” and “illustrate”). The same “leuk” root produced the Greek “leukos” (white), which is found in “leukemia,” a disease which causes over-production of white blood cells.

The basic senses of this “light” employ the noun in its literal meaning of “luminance,” but the figurative senses are where the fun is. We speak of a lively person having “light” in his or her eyes, and “the light of one’s eye” being a dear friend, child or lover. To reach an understanding of a difficult question (or to receive a religious or political conversion) is “to see the light.” Matters not previously known, when revealed, are said to “come to light” with added details “shedding light.” A person who falls asleep quickly is said to be “out like a light,” and “lights out” can mean either bedtime or a boxer knocked down for the count.

The “light” in “in light of,” which dates back to the late 17th century, is the metaphorical illumination cast on a question by the particular facts or circumstances of a situation, especially if they exert an influence on the outcome of a decision. “In light of” an offender’s youth and lack of a criminal record, for instance, the usual sentence may be suspended, or “in light of” a recent job loss the purchase of a new car might be delayed.

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