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July 12, 2010

ORIGIN late 18th cent.: from French, from Latin incandescent- ‘glowing,’ from the verb incandescere, from in- (expressing intensive force) + candescere ‘become white’ (from candidus ‘white’ ).

Incandescent, a fabulous word for people who excel like a skyrocket in the night.  Such brilliance cannot be ignored or mistaken or forgotten.  It is spine-tingling ability, tinged with a sense of the transitory.  Incandescence does not last for ever.

Even now this commendatory word is becoming tarnished, even pejorative: incandescent light bulbs are on the black list.  Of course, technology  moves on.  Compact Fluorescent light bulbs are tremendously more efficient and really are the next thing.

But what of incandescence?  Can we keep the word and it’s superlative connotation?  Even were I to find my calling, to be unequaled and peerless, to accomplish something to put my face in the papers and my name in the history books, who wants to be called Fluorescent?

What shall be the fate of words which have transcended their original meaning to take on something grander, nobler, only to be trodden down again as the world changes?  Language is plastic.  It changes to reflect the society of its speakers.  But it also lives in the minds of any who know and use it.  Can we not support and keep alive precious mouthfuls of expression?  In-can-de-scent, it is so evocative of a  beautiful power found in humanity.  Do we throw it out with the technological bathwater?  How shall we describe and honor the one who writes a stunning first novel or produces groundbreaking physics or moves an audience to tears from the stage?  There is no other word so perfectly apt when incandescent is the word to use.

So, replace your light bulbs, lower your bills, conserve energy, but consider and cherish the words which still have meaning and a place in the world.  Carry them through the changes until they are again pure and the taint forgotten.

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