Merriam-Webster Word of the Day: Lambent


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is lambent. Read on for what it means, how it’s used, and more.

What It Means

When used literally, lambent can mean “softly bright or radiant” or “flickering.” Lambent is also often used to describe speech, writing, music, and even wine, that has a light, appealing quality.

// Sitting around the campfire, we were mesmerized by the lambent flames dancing into the night.

// As a writer she is known for the lambent wit with which she deftly and amusingly describes the absurdities of modern life.

LAMBENT in Context

“Observe the impact in the Clark’s permanent collection of a [Berthe] Morisot painting, “The Bath” (1885-86), amid several girly Renoirs…. Renoir’s rosy-fleshed models do arbitrarily fussy things with their hands. Morisot’s puts up her hair, anchoring in immediate experience the work’s lambent lyricism.” — Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker, 7 Sept. 2020

Did You Know?

In his short story “The Word,” Vladimir Nabokov limned a dream-like landscape where “a wind, like the foretaste of a miracle, played in my hair” and grasses “lapped at the tree trunks like tongues of fire.” Both the wind and the grass in these passages might be described by one of the oldest senses of lambent: “playing lightly over a surface.” That Nabokov compared flames to tongues, as people often do, is doubly appropriate. Lambent, which first appeared in English in the 17th century, is a part of this tradition, coming from lambens, a form of the Latin verb lambere, meaning “to lick.” (Lap, as in “waves lapping at the shore,” also counts lambere among its distant relations.) Early uses of lambent were usually applied to flames or light (it can also mean “flickering”), and by way of that association, the term eventually came to describe things with a radiant or brilliant glow, first in a literal sense (“a lambent sunset”) and later a figurative one applied to prose, music, and other expressions marked by lightness or brilliance.

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