Sunbeams: More than what Meets the Eye

Once again, I have stumbled across and interesting word that I think is worth sharing with people. Today? It is the word sunbeam. And after you have said and read it as many times as I have, it will not sound much like a word anymore. But bear with me, I promise it has a fascinating etymology.

Sunbeam is an interesting word because it comes from the joining of two words, each of which can be both a noun and a verb, though the word itself is a noun. The first is sun. The original root comes from the Latin sol meaning “sun”; a derivative of this is saewel meaning both “to shine” and “sun”. The Old Irish was fur-sunnud to mean “lighting up”; the German and Gothic respectively was sonne and sunno, Middle Dutch ‘sonne’, Old High German and Old Saxon sunna, and the Old English sunne, all of which meant “sun”. You may think this all sounds redundant, but I think it is important to understand the relationship English has with it continental relations.  In the Old English, sunne was a feminine form and remained as such until the 1500’s when the masculine form replaced it. However, during this time the word also gained a verbal use. A person could sun something by putting it is the sun to dry, or to warm something or someone up.

Beam is the second part of the word. Coming from the Proto Germanic word baumaz, which came from the Old Norse baðmr’ Old Frisian bam, and Old High German baum all of which meant “tree, beam, or gallows”. In the 10th century it was a rafter of a house, a post, or a ship’s wood. The Old English word however meant a “living tree”. As of the 1200’s, a beam was the widest part of the ship, and such a term could be used to refer to a wide-hipped person. However, it is assumed that the definition of “ray of light” came from a biblical use of a “pillar, or beam of fire” used in the Old Testament. By the 1400’s, a beam could be something that “emitted rays of light”. Yet a beam could also mean a bright smile.

‘Sunne’ and ‘beam’ did eventually come together and come to mean a “ray of light”. The spelling of the word ‘sunnebeme” or ‘sunnebeam’ remained until the 1400’s. Up until the 1800’s, sunbeam was spelled sunnebeam, as it kept the second n and the e. In the late 1800’s, a sunnebeam could also be used to describe a very cheerful person. Yet the word has not outworn its use, as in some areas a sunbeam is a word used to describe “a radiant coloured humming-bird” as well as other birds of the nectariniidae family.

I must be honest, when I first looked up this word I did not expect it to have gone through such a journey to come to mean what it has today. The part about hummingbirds did surprise me, but it makes sense since they are bright little birds that reflect the sun’s light. I know this is just a short entry, but I hope you found my latest word(s) interesting. This is why I never stop digging up words: You never know what kind of interesting tidbits are left in the past unless you search them out.

Have a wonderful and hopefully sunny day,



As with anything I discuss concerning etymology, these words came from the Oxford English dictionary, however, all is my own work.

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