Friday, October 05, 2012

Chandeliers, electroliers and names

 click photo to enlarge
On a couple of occasions I've reflected on the way that words pass out of daily use and acquire the status of "archaic" in the dictionary. Today's photograph prompted me to wander down that path again.

I took the shot near the west door of the church of St Wulfram at Grantham, Lincolnshire. The faceted glass or perspex is the top of the new internal porch which, on the dull day of our visit had its light turned on. Above is the Victorian glass of the west window. Appearing to float in the darkness nearby, like a spaceship in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", is a ... well, what shall I call it? Like many such examples of branched church lighting this one dates from the early 1800s and started life as a chandelier - a hanging ornamental light fitting that held candles. It would have been lit and replenished by someone standing on steps or by the whole light being lowered using a chain or rope. Both these methods of servicing this kind of light were inconvenient. Consequently it is no surprise that when electricity became widely available churches frequently converted their chandeliers from candles to light bulbs. The flick of a wall switch was much easier than struggling to light 18 or so candles with a flickering taper. But with this change-over came the problem of nomenclature.

The first "chandeliers" that were purposely made for electric light bulbs were named, quite sensibly, "electroliers" (the first instance of use cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is 1882). It was a good marketing tactic and it better described the new take on an old idea. Moreover, the gas versions that preceded them were called "gaseliers". But immediately a problem arose: what do you call an old chandelier that is converted from candles to electric light bulbs? Do you stick with the name that indicates what it was originally or do you use the newfangled "electrolier" to show how progressive you are and to more accurately describe the updated light? There was no great debate on this matter, usage alone determined the course of what happened. The newly made electric chandeliers, for a few decades, often (though not always) were described as electroliers. Conversions generally (though not always) stuck with chandelier. Then, over time, the use of the word electrolier declined and chandelier re-asserted itself to describe the electric versions, which had become the dominant type, as well as those versions continuing to use candles. Today the word "electrolier" is mainly restricted to describing the early "electric chandeliers" that would have had that name applied when they were first made. The OED doesn't yet describe "electrolier" as archaic, but it can only be a matter of time.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 50mm
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/20
ISO: 1250
Exposure Compensation:  -0.33 EV
Image Stabilisation: On