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The Scrivener: Lapping Light

...Isn't it intriguing to know that a part of you disappears when you stand up? It's the part which children, grandchildren, cats and dogs are very fond of. It's there while they are sitting on it. It's gone when you rise. It is, of course, your lap. But how is it that a lap is also the gentle sound of water splashing on something? Or the distance covered by a runner?...

Brian Barratt takes another journey back in time to explore the multiple meanings of a single word.

To read more of Brian's articles about homonyms and many other subjects please visit
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Homonyms: Words which have several meanings, 3

Isn't it intriguing to know that a part of you disappears when you stand up? It's the part which children, grandchildren, cats and dogs are very fond of. It's there while they are sitting on it. It's gone when you rise. It is, of course, your lap. But how is it that a lap is also the gentle sound of water splashing on something? Or the distance covered by a runner?

Let's start at the beginning. Over a thousand years ago, in Old English, a lppa was a part of a garment which hung down in such a way that it could be folded over to form a sort of pocket. By about 700 years ago it was also used for the knees and front part of someone who is sitting down, covered by their garment.

As a large fold or a pocket in one's clothing, Chaucer mentions it in The Canterbury Tales:
...His walet, biforn hym in his lappe
His knapsack before him in his large pocket.
...And carie it in a cofre or in a lappe
And carry it in a coffer or in a lap

Now back to Old English: The verb lapian meant to lap up with one's tongue. The idea of the tongue licking is also found in our word lambent, which refers to the soft flickering light of a flame. This relationship between two quite different words can be traced back to ancient Indo-European roots -lab and -leb, which both carried the idea of licking.

The idea of water moving, splashing, lapping against something arises from the same origins. It is used beautifully and with alliteration (repetition of the initial letter in several words) by W.B.Yeats in his poem The Lake Isle of Innisfree:
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

In the Old Testament of the Bible, there's a story about how Gideon was told by God to sort people out by the way they drank water from a spring. Some would stay and some would be sent home:
And the Lord said to Gideon, "The people with you are still too many; take them down to the water and I will test them for you there... So he brought the people down to the water; and the Lord God said to Gideon,"Every one that laps the water with his tongue, as a dog laps, you shall set by himself." (Judges 4 & 5.)

And so we come to runners and their laps. This usage first appeared in print in the mid-1800's. It derives from other uses of lap in relation to measurement and overlap. These come largely from Middle English lappe, lap, border, which comes from Old English lppa.

A lambent flame, mentioned above. gives out light. This is a word with a long and varied history going back to Old English leoht. The same word was also used to mean not heavy, and another word had that meaning: em>leocht.

In later Middle English leoht kept its meaning in relation to illumination but leocht became liht, referring to weight. The German language is closely related to English and in modern German the first is now Licht, the second leicht. You can also see a similarity in the Danish word lys and even in Icelandic ljos, relating to colour, and lettur, relating to weight.

Shakespeare's Words: A Glossary and Language Companion (D. & B. Crystal) lists many ways in which the remarkable and imaginative bard used the word, in its adjective and verb forms:
immoral, promiscuous
joyful, merry
easy, effortless
minor, slight
worthless, relating to counterfeit coins
to dismount
to meet with.

A third meaning comes as a bit of a surprise.. In Middle English, the lungs were called lihtes because they were regarded as the lightest in weight of the bodily organs. This gives rise to the modern English usage of lights for the lungs of animals. Lights in modern German are lunge.

Did you know that light can also lap? Jules Verne brings light and lapping together in a picturesque way in Twenty thousand Leagues under the Sea:
...Captain Nemo unfurled a black banner, bearing an N in gold quartered on its bunting. Then turning toward the orb of day, whose last rays lapped the horizon of the sea, he exclaimed: "Adieu, sun! Disappear, thou radiant orb! rest beneath this open sea, and let a night of six months spread its shadow over my new domains!"

This compilation Copyright Brian Barratt 2010

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