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Interfulgent

19 May 2019

 

One of the most popular HH words for a while resurfaced on Twitter just the other day: the adjective interfulgent describes anything that shines through or between something else. 

 

It’s a useful, beautiful, but criminally underused word. Even the famously exhaustive Oxford English Dictionary lists a mere three instances of it—the most recent of which is already more than a century old: 

 

The windows at each gable end stood open; into one fell the silvery splendor of the moon; the other was dusky and dark with the shadow, though beyond he caught the interfulgent rays amongst the sycamore leaves. The batten shutters swayed gently in the wind. 

 

Mary Noailles Murfree, In Stranger People’s Country (1891)

 

So in the interests of hauling this particular gem out of obscurity, here’s a bit little more about it...  

 

Interfulgent dates from the early eighteenth century or thereabouts, and was first recorded in print in a Universal Etymological English Dictionary compiled by the lexicographer Nathan Bailey in 1721. 

 

Though relatively little known today, Bailey’s Universal Dictionary was the work on which Samuel Johnson based his monumental Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. And so, lo and behold, on page 1109 of his dictionary, Dr Johnson likewise lists the adjective interfulgent—alongside a handful of equally superb inter– words like interjacency (“something that lies between or divides two things”), intercolumniation (“the space between the columns of a building”), interlapse (“the flow of time between two events”), intermural (“lying between two walls”), and interfluent (an adjective describing anything that flows between two other things). 

 

There’s clearly a common thread emerging here. That’s because etymologically that prefix inter– comes to us from a Latin preposition, inter—literally meaning “between,” “among,” or “in the midst of”—which is widely used to create words bearing some sense of lying, passing, standing, or otherwise being somehow located between other things. That’s how we’ve ended up with words like internal and interior, as well as the likes of interrupt (literally, “to break through”), interject (literally, “to throw between”), and even intelligent—which may have lost its R, but probably literally refers to someone with a discerning enough mind to be able proficiently to “choose” (Latin legere) “between” (Latin inter) two or more alternatives. 

 

That second part, –fulgent, meanwhile, is an adjective in its own right, literally meaning “shining”, “dazzling”, or “resplendent”. It too has its origins in Latin, coming from the verb fulgere, meaning “to shine” or “gleam”. That’s the same root we still have in words like refulgence and effulgence (both meaning “dazzling radiance”), as well as the likes of affulsion (“the act of shining or glowing”), fulgur (a sixteenth century word for a flash of lightning), and the adjective prefulgent (meaning “outdazzling” or “outshining”—or by extension, “outdoing” or “outperforming”). 

 

Put those two elements together then, and you’ve got interfulgent—a word that literally means, as Dr Johnson puts it, “shining between.” 

 

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