I wish to delve into the definition, which I already understand and so ask NOT about. I heed the Etymological Fallacy. What are some right ways of interpreting the noun 'lustre', so that the etymology for 'wan' feels reasonable and intuitive?

wan {adjective} = 1.3. {literary} (Of the sea) without lustre; dark and gloomy.

Etymonline for 'wan': Old English wann "dark, dusky, lacking luster," later "leaden, pale, gray," of uncertain origin, and not found in other Germanic languages.
The connecting notion is colorlessness. Perhaps related to wane.

Etymonline for 'lustre': ... related to lucere "shine," lux "light" (see light (n.)).

I only cited Definition 1.3 because I'm guessing that as the literary definition, it's the oldest and so hasn't been coloured by newer meanings crammed into this adjective.
My problem: lacking luster does NOT equate to pale, because lustre refers to 'glow' or 'shine', not 'light' itself. So how does lacking luster evolve into pale?

Footnote: My friend saw the word 'wan' while reading this, and then introduced me to it.

  • 1
    The nearest I can get to the meaning of "lacking luster" is "dull". It's not clear to me, though, why you think luster would have to have had the meaning "light" for this etymology to make sense. The entry does not say that "lacking luster" = "pale", it says that they are two different, yet related meanings of the word. – sumelic Mar 28 '15 at 14:45
  • 5
    Why do you keep trying to “rationalize” etymology? You cannot ever do that. – tchrist Mar 28 '15 at 15:27
  • Glancing through the first few pages of pre-1700 instances of the lustre in Google Books, I have the impression it's more often used figuratively (of God, virtue, etc.), where the allusion implies a metaphoric source of light. Increasingly in later texts it's more likely to apply to (actual or figurative) reflected light. – FumbleFingers Mar 28 '15 at 15:29
  • The definition "lacking lustre" above in the etymology uses the current definition of lustre. The OED's oldest definition of wan is: "Lacking light, or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark. Obs. Chiefly poet." So clearly the OED does not think light means lustre in this definition. – Peter Shor Mar 28 '15 at 16:00
  • @tchrist I should've cited the advice of user Ben Kovitz, which I now edited my OP to do. Do you agree with it: please see english.stackexchange.com/questions/205571/… ? His comment is precisely what I'm trying to obey, whenever I try to "“rationalize” etymology, – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Mar 28 '15 at 16:17

The early use of lustre was full of light--literal and figurative.

Splendor Solis by Solomon Trismosin in 1582 suggests reflected light on the surface of metals:

His definition of it is that it gives lustre to metals, and colour and fragrance to flowers.

On page 400 of Certaine articles or forcible reasons in 1600, Thomas Wright and ‎Etienne Binet suggest refracted light from a diamond:

O goodly miracle to behold her so long time a Virgin in the midst of the Court , as a Diamond among flames and not be melted, nor to haue the lustre of its sparkling lessened'

On Page 169 of Du Bartas His Deuine Weekes and Workes in 1613, Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas used lustre to describe the light of the sun reflecting off of the moon:

The Sun there shifting in the Zodiack
His shining Houses, neuer did forsake
His pointed Path: there, in a Month, his Sister
Fulfill'd her course and changing oft her lustre
And form of Face (now larger, lesser soon)
Follow'd the Changes of the other Moon.

On page 7 of The Lady's Privilege: A Comedy in 1640, Henry Glapthorne used lustre for the shining light of the sun:

... subjects ought to offer,
With the sincere devotion that our priests
Do prayers to heaven, their hands as sacrifices
To their deserving princes, whose sole favours
Do, as the quick'ning lustre of the sun,
Cherish inferior spirits.

In 1613, Thomas Heywood used lustre for the metaphoric light of the face in A Marriage Triumph, on the Nuptials of the Prince:

Such lustre in Adonis cheeke did move,
When he was haunted by the queene of love:
So looked Hypolitus when, clad in greene,
He was oft courted by th' Athenian queene.

It was quite common to use lustre for the glory of God in mankind, as on page 71 of Several sermons and discourses of William Dell:

They have a more excellent lustre then other men. One thing that appertaines to the excellency of precious stones, is the lustre of them. Now this lustre in the faithfull, is the glory of God upon them:

Wan suggests the colorless grey of dusk. The reflective luster of everything on earth diminishes, as the lustre of the sun decreases at sunset.


Well, while most of the people associate it with "gloss," 1 in the following definition, "luster" can still mean something close to "light" (see meaning 2):

lus·ter noun

1 a : a glow of reflected light : gloss, sheen

a : a glow of light from within : luminosity, shine

luster of the stars

Blue Grotto of the magical luster — Claudia Cassidy

b : an inner beauty : radiance

one of those figures of spirit and light that leave an unforgettable luster in the mind — Gordon Webber

Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

I'd say, spare your time and buy an online subscription to this superior dictionary, really the reference for American English. It's only $30/year.

  • The OP already has OED access; why in the world would he want a small dictionary that doesn’t even have standard phonetics (read: no IPA!!) and is furthermore limited to one area of speakers instead of the whole world? Plus it is not an historical dictionary. – tchrist Mar 29 '15 at 3:34
  • @tchrist: ah, good for him then:-) – Marius Hancu Mar 29 '15 at 3:38
  • I agree that MWU is the best dictionary published to date in America. All the other MW stuff is crappy, but it isn't. There's just a lot it misses. – tchrist Mar 29 '15 at 3:51

Not every English word is from Anglo-Saxon. I favour Welsh "wan", meaning "weak".

English has more Brythonic words than Oxford philologists realise: "Mum" and "Dad", for instance. Cam, tweed and ooze are three more. A number of surnames are professions, but in Brythonic, for example, Goff = Smith; or animals: Brock = badger is one many will know.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.