Alight here

alight here

Courtesy Flickr


Courtesy Flickr

There’s a funny quirk of the English public transport system that I was reminded of recently during a trip to Brighton. “Alight here for the pier”, bus passengers were advised by the recorded voice with a cut-glass accent reminiscent of BBC wartime broadcasts. Then I realized it isn’t just Sussex folk who alight from trains and buses: Londoners on the tube are told politely not just to “mind the gap” on boarding and exiting their carriages but also to alight for certain lines and destinations. “Alight here for Buckingham Palace” is something I can imagine A. A. Milne’s Christopher Robin might have chirped, but the word strikes me as a charming anachronism in 21st-century English. Would you hear it in any other context — or indeed in any other country?

Oxford Dictionaries, talking about its English usage, gives the primary definition of alight as to descend from a train, bus or other form of transport, eg. “visitors should alight at the Fort Road stop”. For American users, the same word means (of a bird) descend from the air and settle, eg. “a lovely blue swallow alighted on a branch”. For the Yanks, the secondary definition is that used on English buses; Brits, conversely, think of commuters minding the gap before they imagine birds landing poetically. 

The word’s etymology is romantic in itself. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, alight comes from the Old English alihtan, meaning “to lighten, take off, take away”, from a- (“down, aside”) + lihtan (“get off, make light”). The notion is of getting down off a horse or vehicle, thus lightening it. It was used of aircraft (originally balloons) from 1786. 

Here is an example of an “alight here” announcement on the London buses:

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