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This sentence is from Atlas Shrugged, depicting rays of light running through coils of steam enveloping a building:

The rays of a few strong lights cut straight sheafs through the coils.

Could anyone please explain to me how sheafs is to be understood here?

Does it denote the verb sheaf, as in bundle? That was the first thing to come to mind, but that seems wrong to me.

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Does the author mean shafts? –  Peter Shor Apr 26 at 18:12
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No, she doesn't. I also checked on the internet whether the book may have a spelling error, and it doesn't seem so. –  user73297 Apr 26 at 18:42
    
I like this question. When I think of a "sheaf", I think of a bound clump of straight wheat stalks. When I apply that to your quote, I imagine those stalks tumbling loosely through the air as the falling bundle of stalks forms sunbeams, kind of like an abstract-art painting. I enjoyed the imagery. I don't know if I classified this quote correctly, but that is how I envision it. Have a nice day. –  Apple Freejeans Apr 26 at 18:51
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@medica: The only problem is that in this sentence, sheafs appears to be used as a plural noun, and the plural of the noun sheaf is sheaves. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 26 at 19:35
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I am not Ayn Rand. As it is she who wrote Atlas Shrugged, and not I, I will not be so bold as to try to correct her. Writers use language; they are not slaves to it. Doctors use medication/treatment guidelines; they are not slaves to them (experience matters.) There is practicality, and then there is art. –  medica Apr 26 at 19:43

2 Answers 2

It appears to be a distinctly technical meaning to sheaf. OED has

6.
a. Physics and Math. A bundle of rays, lines, etc. all passing through a given point.

1863 J. Tyndall Heat ix. §359. 302 A sheaf of calorific rays.
1885 C. Leudesdorf tr. L. Cremona Elem. Projective Geom. 22 A sheaf (sheaf of planes, sheaf of lines) is a figure made up of planes or straight lines, all of which pass through a given point (the centre of the sheaf).
1890 T. H. Eagles Descriptive Geom. 303 Sheafs of rays which in the case of a source of light..form a cone of which that source is the vortex.

Here's such an image. This is rays of sunlight through smoke, but I couldn't find a better representation of the dictionary definition.

Rays of light through smoke

Sunlight in Woodland by Keggy

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Noun, not verb

Sheafs is here a plural noun, not a singular verb. There does exist a verb sheaf meaning to bind up into a sheaf or sheaves, but that is not what this instance of the word is.

And you’re right that sheaf has as its oldest sense a bundle of things, usually grains. It appears metaphorically in the familiar Gospel tune “Bringing In the Sheaves”.

What we have here in your quotation is another extended meaning. The OED gives these pertinent senses:

1e. A cluster of jets of fire or water darting up together. (Cf. F. gerbe.)

  • 1811 Pinkerton Petral. II. 535 — A thousand sheaves of fire blew up into the air, where, breaking and dispersing, they fell like a shower of stars.
  • 1857 Dufferin Lett. High Lat. 125 — A shining liquid column, or rather a sheaf of columns wreathed in robes of vapour, sprung into the air.

But even more likely is this one:

6a. Physics and Math. A bundle of rays, lines, etc. all passing through a given point.

  • 1863 Tyndall Heat ix. §359. 302 — A sheaf of calorific rays.
  • 1885 Leudesdorf Cremona’s Proj. Geom. 22 — A sheaf (sheaf of planes, sheaf of lines) is a figure made up of planes or straight lines, all of which pass through a given point (the centre of the sheaf).
  • 1890 Eagles Descript. Geom. 303 — Sheafs of rays which in the case of a source of light..form a cone of which that source is the vortex.

Sheafs or Sheaves?

As for the variant inflections, sheafs and sheaves alternate. Both are current; I don’t know their relative popularity.

The sheaves form dates from the 16th century, and sheafs from the 17th.

In the north of Britain (northern England and Scotland) during the 19th century and perhaps later could be found dialectal plurals like shoves and shoofs.

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