I went on a road trip with two friends today. As we were driving across the Burlington Bay Skyway, we observed the quasi-stygian landscape (Burtynskyesque) of the steel mills. But it’s really quite a tame sight now compared to what it once was; one has the sense of the steel industry gradually fading into twilight years. I recalled my first encounter with Hamilton, as a child, when a family friend, driving me and my brother from the airport in Toronto to my dad’s childhood stomping grounds in Buffalo, had us put on masks to protect our lungs from the air there; when we stopped for gas, the air had a definite orange cast.

My friend Alex’s response? “It made spectacular sunsets.” True enough: clear air makes for fairly plain sunsets – the more crap you have in the air, the more spectacular the sunsets tend to be (as long as you can see them), layered like crepe paper, sometimes with almost muscular striations (though, in the wrong smog, creeping and pustular). Your eyes tell you to breathe deep the gathering gloom (to quote from the Moody Blues); your lungs beg you not to.

But I mislead: crepuscular does not relate to sunsets, not directly. Rather, it relates to what follows them, something that comes in ample quantity in boreal latitudes and is brutally fleeting in the tropics: twilight.

Oh, great, now I’m going to get people coming to this page because they were searching for stuff on vampires. Ugh. I haven’t read the Twilight series, so I have no direct comments on its merits, but in general I’m not strongly inclined to read about creeps and corpuscles. It sounds craptacular to me. I’m not here for tweens (other than exceptionally literate ones); I’m here today to talk about the between times – between night and not night. When darkness covers us, it is not the vampire’s cape, not the shades we are dragged into by a creeper, but rather the dull crepe of the creper, which is Latin for “dark”. Make a diminutive of that and you have crepusculum, the lesser darkness: what we experience as the suddenly frantic half-dark.

The Romans tended to use the term more for dawn than for dusk, it seems, but dusk is more in our experience now. True, many of us in northern countries wake in the pre-dawn twilight for much of the year, but few people are not up and about and looking out during the dimming hours. It’s a time when we probably finish work and settle into our home-oriented routines, perhaps to settle in for a favourite sitcom, or go out for leisure and pleasure. The word twilight has a certain dreamy quality to it, an echo of night and a persistence of light. But the word crepuscular, an adjective for twilight, is more likely to send a shiver down the back, as though some unexpected furry thing were brushing against you, or perhaps a chupacabra were licking its chops in your carport.

True, this word hides sup and even super backwards, but in its crisp crackle and hiss (reminiscent of the sound from an old gramophone record set to play by a fireplace in a cabin in the grasslands a century back) we find no plenitude of positive associations as it passes over our tongues and by our eyes in a forward direction. Some people will like the taste of this word, but there are others who find it – as Elaine Phillips, in requesting this tasting, put it – sinister.

Still, even the not-pretty can have aesthetic value. The hazy air of Hamilton’s harbour presented a prepossessing picture. And from there we rode on, not into the sunset or twilight but just to Buffalo, where one of us owed the other two of us lunch (for losing a bet), at the Cheesecake Factory – we may not be Twilight fans, but we do watch The Big Bang Theory.

7 responses to “crepuscular

  1. I believe I first came across this word in E.B. White’s “The Trumpet of the Swan.”

    “Pop,” said Sam, “what does ‘crepuscular’ mean?”
    “How should I know?” replied Mr. Beaver. “I never heard the word before.”
    “It has something to do with rabbits,” said Sam. “It says here that a rabbit is a crepuscular animal.”
    “Probably means timid,” said Mr. Beaver. “Or maybe it means that it can run like the dickens. Or maybe it means stupid. A rabbit will sit right in the middle of the road at night and stare into your headlights and never get out of the way, and that’s how a lot of rabbits get run over. They’re stupid.”
    “Well,” said Sam, “I guess the only way to find out what ‘crepuscular’ means is to look it up in the dictionary.”

  2. Yesterday, I was thinking about crepscule as away of recounting how many words I know for twilight. I know Twilight, Gloaming , Cokshut, Dusk, Evenfall…Do you know more? 🙂

    When I write it’s evenfall, in MS-Word 2010, I do not get an ‘add-to-dictionary’ option, it rather inserts’ even fall’ in place of ‘evenfall’. Any solutions, if you consider it a problem?

  3. I first read the word “crepuscular” in Isabel Allende’s novel “Portrait in Sepia”. Now, Rob likes to pretend that he’s talking in the persona of our cats, and one of his pet phrases (ha!) Is “I am crepuscular!”

  4. Serling’s “Twilight Zone” still stands for cravers of creepy-crawly crepuscular experiences. Who could condemn the cringing chills contained in this concatenation of disquieting accounts?

  5. Thanks James. Among all the words ( Twilight, Crepuscule, Evenfall, Dusk..) Twilight seems to have highest aesthetic appeal as you have suggested!

  6. Pingback: Words we love irrationally much | Sesquiotica

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