Equilux

Twice a year, as you know, there’s a day when the hours of darkness and the hours of light are equivalent. One of those days is in the autumn, and marks a point of transition as the year dwindles down to its nadir at the winter solstice – the shortest day. The other is in the spring, and marks the opposite point of transition as the year surges towards its apotheosis at the summer solstice – the longest day. One of those transitional days – the spring one, here in the northern hemisphere; the autumn one in the south – is today.

These days have a name, of course, one that I have avoided using up until now. That name is equinox. It’s a word that derives from the Latin, and it’s formed from aequi (meaning equal) and nox (meaning night). So equinox means, literally, ‘equal night’, and it’s literally accurate. This is when light and dark balance, and it makes as much sense to speak of equal night as equal day – they are different ways of expressing the same concept. But, for me, the connotations of the word equinox seem more suited to autumn than spring.

Now, the connotations of a word are those aspects of its meaning that cluster around its literal definition, and affect the way it’s understood. In strict definitional terms, there’s little to choose between the words “abnormal” and “atypical”, and the statements “homosexuality is abnormal” and “homosexuality is atypical” carry very similar literal meanings – both indicate that homosexuality is less common than its opposite. But few would dispute that the different connotations of the words load the two statements with very different overall meanings: “atypical” is carefully neutral where “abnormal” implies a negative value judgement so strong that only a homophobe would choose to use it.

So, as I say, the connotations of equinox – the non-literal aspects of its meaning – seem to me more appropriate to the autumn than the spring. The second half of the word calls up images of darkness, absence of light, etc. – all things that it is only appropriate for the mind to focus on as the autumn shifts inexorably towards the winter. But in the spring – when the Earth is tilting back towards the sun – so much emphasis on night and darkness seems misplaced.

At this time of year, it seems more appropriate to focus instead on daylight and sunshine – those things which have been scarce or absent of late, and the resurgence of which we are so eagerly expecting (those of us whose moods correlate with the seasons most especially). So it’s for this reason that I wonder why, when this transitional day occurs in spring, we don’t talk about “equal day” instead. As I mentioned earlier, these are, after all, just different ways of expressing the same concept.

The Latin word for day (so google informs this non-classically educated alumnus of a comprehensive school)* is dies – pronounced, presumably, “dee-ess” rather than “dyes”. That doesn’t really work, not just because of the deathly connotation that is inescapable for anyone reading the word, but also because it just doesn’t work well with the equi- prefix. Try saying it aloud: “eck-wee dee-ess”. See what I mean? Just doesn’t sound good.

But all is not lost, because (so my painfully-acquired smatterings of Latin, as confirmed by google, tell me) the Latin for light is lux. So “equal light” would be equilux. Now, that – that works well. It sounds good. It looks good. It even makes a neat pattern with the established term equinox, since both are the same length and both end in x.

Best of all, the images it conjures in the mind – light, daytime – are appropriate for the spring. To put it another way, the connotations of the word match the season much better than the dreary, dim, tending-toward-night connotations of equinox. I definitely think that, in the spring, we should celebrate the equilux.

(Even if, it turns out, the word is already in use by astronomers to enable them to draw a distinction between the equinox, which has a fixed, technical definition relating to the intersection of the eliptic with the equator, and the equilux – the day when the hours of daylight and darkness are actually equal, which varies depending on where on the planet you are.

I have to say that, while I understand the need for language to describe the distinction, I’m not sure the particular word choices make sense. After all, equilux and equinox are in effect synonyms, since night can’t be equal unless it has something to be equal to – the day. By simple definition, if the lux is not equi then neither is the nox, and vice versa. It seems to me that the day astronomers call the ‘equinox’ requires a different name altogether, since it is not, in fact, the time when the night is equal.)

* – This ‘non-clasically educated alumnus of a comprehensive school’ who is nonetheless keen for you to notice, not only his deployment of a Latin term for someone who graduates from an educational establishment, but also his correct use of the singular form of the far more common plural, alumni… The truth is I wasn’t classically educated, but I am disgustingly – pathetically – proud of the small amount of Latin I have picked up in the years since. (Actually, my comprehensive school did offer a GCSE in Latin, but only with a timetable combination that required anyone taking it to specialise in languages, which ruled it out for someone like me who wanted to pursue a broad curriculum.)

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