Gloaming in Guernsey and Tasmania

Gloaming in Guernsey

Part of my summer reading over Christmas and New Year (2019-2020) has been The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It is a delightful novel set in the immediate post-war period on the channel island of Guernsey. Although quite a light novel, its plot slowly and cleverly unfolds the tragedies made of ordinary lives by the German occupation of the island.

Author, Mary Ann Shaffer had worked as an editor, librarian, and as a sales assistant in bookshops. At the age of seventy, she fulfilled her ambition to write a successful novel. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is imbued with her obvious knowledge and love of books.

I was disappointed to find out as I read the book’s postscript, that Shaffer had died of cancer in February 2008. It was just a few months before the novel was published (she was helped to complete it by her niece, Annie Barrows, a children’s author). I was also utterly surprised to find out that Shaffer was an American author who had lived in California. It is a tribute to her and her editors, that the vocabulary and tone of the language had seemed so wonderfully English. Indeed, I had been particularly pleased by her use of gloaming, rather than twilight and was sparked into researching and writing about the word.

The word history of gloaming

Gloaming is a very old word descended from the Old English word, glomung, meaning twilight or, particularly, the fall of evening. It is formed similarly to the old English word, æfning, for evening.

Gloaming is related to glowan, meaning to glow, from Proto-Germanic roots. Going further back again, gloaming is formed from the Proto-Indo-European root word, ghel, which meant to shine. From this long-ago ancestor gloaming is related to many recognisable words: gold, glow, gloss, glass, glisten, glimmer, glint. Which makes it quite magical meaning the shine of the evening between sunlight and moonlight.

The word gloaming had survived in the Yorkshire dialect of northern England. Robbie Burns (and other Scottish writers) reintroduced gloaming into mainstream English (albeit literary English) in the late 18thcentury. John Keats (see John Keats and tender writing) uses gloam (as a back-formation from gloaming) in his well-known poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci in 1821.

It is important to point out that gloaming is not related to gloom, which has almost the opposite meaning. Gloom has a completely different history—it originally meant a sullen look. It was also given a literary life in poetry by Milton who used it in 1629 to mean a darkness or obscurity.

Tasmanian noir

I discover that, by a little coincidence, Australia’s video streaming company, Stan, is releasing a new noir thriller called The Gloaming on New Years Day 2020. The Gloaming is described as a “character-driven and moody Tasmanian noir”. In the report on the program is described as being “ambitious TV on many fronts”, one of which is using a title that the viewers would not understand. In the report, Vicki Madden, the creator of the program stated:

It was a word I was wanting to use. My mum was Welsh and she used to talk about the gloaming a lot. It’s the space in between, and I knew I wanted to do a ghost story, and ghosts sit in a liminal space.

The report suggests that the meaning of gloaming is so evocative and specific that it really couldn’t have been named anything else.

It is pleasing to find this wonderful old word finding new currency with a Californian author and a Tasmanian thriller.