What is ‘lambency’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: lambency…

I encountered the word lambency while reading Elizabeth Strout’s remarkable novel Anything is Possible. If you’re looking for a good book to read — a series of interconnected short stories, in the style of writer Alice Munro — I suggest you pick up this one. (In 2021, Strout also released a new novel, Oh William!, about which I’ve read excellent reviews.)

Here is how Strout used the word:

A light-skinned back woman with green eyes, she gave off a sense of quiet self-assuredness; the lambency of this lightly worn authority made him right away love the space between her two front teeth, the kohl pencil line above her eyelashes, how she’d listen and nod and say, “That’s right.”

I knew the word had something to do with “light,” but I couldn’t remember quite what. Turns out, it means “having a gentle glow” or “being luminous.” Other synonyms include: being bright or dazzling (and it might be used in the metaphorical sense), brilliant or radiant. The photo I’ve shown above has the quality of lambency.

But the etymology is fascinating! The word, which dates back to the 1640s comes from a figurative use of the Latin word lambentem, meaning “to lick, lap, wash, bathe.” It refers to a light or flame flowing or running over the surface of something. Isn’t that interesting?

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Feb. 7/18.

Scroll to Top