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A friend of mine had this request:

Alright so I was sitting at this table with a kerosene lamp, and it was a little too bright. Watch out! So I turned a little knobbly thing to lower the flame, and then had the vaguest recollection that there was some verb for this precise action, the dimming of an oil lamp, but a week of pondering and now some searches for "list of lamp actions" have not flushed out any foxes. Can anyone toss me some helps on this one? I think it may be an archaic word that one would find in Charlotte Bronte or Laura Ingalls Wilder, also maybe the kind of word that the Decemberists or Joanna Newsom would bandy about to show they mean nineteenth-century business.

I briefly checked the OED online and some other sources (well, Google) but didn't find anything sufficiently specific. Does anyone know if this word actually exists?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Trim

Here's the ngram graph for "trim your lamps," "trim the lamps," "trim your lamp," and "trim the lamp."

enter image description here

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"Trim" is of course the correct word. I'd upvoted @Richard for that earlier, but since his "scatter gun" approach also included bedim, lower, dim, extinguish, and douse (though not turn down, curiously), I do think yours is a much better answer. "Trim" does sometimes mean cutting off the impure burnt tip of the wick, as opposed to lowering it, but the standard meaning is that second action. Related to trimming the sails on a ship, obviously. –  FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 0:45
    
Trimming a lamp is meant to increase, not decrease, its light. See also Matt 25:7 "Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps." –  JeffSahol Aug 24 '11 at 18:53
    
"Trim" is the word my friend was looking for, despite it apparently actually having the opposite meaning... so I guess you get the checkmark. –  David Z Aug 24 '11 at 19:43
    
Citations! I demand citations! To me, when one trims a paraffin lamp, one is trimming the wick, not making it less bright. I stand to be corrected, but only by the business end of a citation. –  Tom Anderson Sep 7 '11 at 16:55
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There's also "bedim":

bedim verb \bi-ˈdim, bē-\ 1. to make less bright

First known use: 1565

Other than that, just "lower" or "dim". You can also "trim" an oil lamp (or more accurately, its wick).

Of course, there's "extinguish" or "douse", but those aren't the same.

Not very helpful, I'm afraid.

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Given that I'm not even sure this word exists, anything I get is helpful. –  David Z Aug 23 '11 at 19:14
2  
+1 for trim. I suspect this term came from trimming candle wicks to reduce smoke, but it's also used to describe the act of reducing the amount of wick available to the flame in various types of lanterns. –  oosterwal Aug 23 '11 at 20:14
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The Oxford Compact Thesaurus suggests:

dim verb 1 the lights were dimmed: turn down, lower, dip, soften, subdue, mute.

Of those, 'turn down' is the most likely synonym, though 'dip' might also work.

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I'm sure OCD doesn't intend to imply "dim" is the word of choice for the action of reducing the light from an oil-lamp by lowering the wick, which does in fact have a far more specific term in trim. –  FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 0:49
    
To trim an oil lamp is to cut the wick so that the flame is more moderate (so it does dim it), but I believe you could turn down the wick on an oil lamp to reduce the light without trimming the wick. –  Jonathan Leffler Aug 24 '11 at 1:57
    
You are simply wrong. In the case of oil-lamps, the cutting is if anything a subsidiary meaning. There is invariably a mechanism for reducing the amount of wick exposed, and that's the primary meaning. Besides, you don't cut the wick to reduce the amount of light - you do this only if impurities have accumulated on the exposed wick, causing it to gutter rather than burn steadily. Consider trimming the sails - this doesn't normally mean cutting them. –  FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 2:06
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Two wholly separate meanings of trim. –  Jonathan Leffler Aug 24 '11 at 2:10
    
I guess we must agree to differ. To me, trim is a general-purpose word that primarily means to adjust, or neaten. In the case of things that keep growing, such as hedges and hair, this invariably must imply cutting. In the case of lamp-wicks, which actually get smaller anyway, you might cut or wipe a bit of unwanted detritus away, and early/crude designs may not have a ratchet feed. But whether you use a knife or not, you still trim it by my definition. It's all from OE trymian, meaning to strengthen, set in order, and older trum (firm). –  FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 2:48
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Does "lower" not work here?

"Let me lower the lights." "He lowered the light."

With an oil lamp, it would have been additionally relevant, since the act of turning down the dial on a kerosene lamp actually lowers the wick into the base of the lamp, which lowers the flame...

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Then why don't you also include "turn down". you say that! –  StackUnderblow Aug 24 '11 at 2:51
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In the east of England there is an old term to 'slocken' a lamp meaning to turn it down. I don't know the derivation; possibly scandinavian.

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Yep, from Old Norse slokna. –  tchrist Jan 12 '13 at 3:06
    
@tchrist, I don't have an Old Norse available right now, but is the ON verb not slokkna as in modern Icelandic? (Incidentally, in all the Scandinavian languages, this verb means to extinguish something completely, rather than just dimming it.) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 7 '13 at 14:32
    
@JanusBahsJacquet I believe that in general Old Norse ≅ modern Icelandic. Apparently ON used just a single k, while modern Norse^H^Hwegian uses either one or two. And yes, it really means to put out, quench, extinguish, slake, sate, &c—not merely to dim. The OED has this etymology for English slocken: “ONor. slokna (Norw. slokna, slokkna, Sw. slockna, older Da. slogne, slugne), f. slokinn, pa. pple. of sløkkva: see slock v.¹” The OED lists five primary transitive senses and some subsenses, and one intransitive sense corresponding to “to go out, to be extinguished”. –  tchrist Dec 7 '13 at 14:45
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One could damp it.

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One damps fires (using a damper, which reduces the air flow to the fireplace) but not lamps. See this Ngram –  Peter Shor Aug 23 '11 at 23:34
    
Similarly, one also banks a fire. But neither of these words would be used in relation to an oil-lamp. –  FumbleFingers Aug 24 '11 at 0:50
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I think "benight" is the most appropriate word for that precise action.

benight = Make darker and Difficult to perceive by sight.

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Just to provide reference for your answer: thefreedictionary.com/benight –  simchona Aug 24 '11 at 10:03
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Funny that no one has given this answer yet, because I thought people usually called it "turn the lamp down", to refer to dimming the lights.

Could you please turn the lamp down? It's a bit too bright.

Specifically for the question, I believe the correct term is "turn the lamp down".

Edit: I would say that "turn down" is the particular phrase you were looking for, "turn down" meaning:

To reduce the amount of something by means of a control, such as the volume, heat, or light.

Thus, we could "turn down the lights," or in this case "turn down the lamp", as well as "turn the radio down", "turn down the stove", etc.

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