Glitter is sharp and bright and contains movement — like the quick trip of its two syllables set apart by sharp little t’s. One-syllable blink and wink are slow, but have movement, whether it’s your eyes or a light doing the winking and blinking (though its pace picks up when it becomes a repeated/ongoing action, doesn’t it? Winking, blinking). Gleam seems slow, soft, steady, and according to its definition applies most to reflected light, which seems right to me; my mind’s eye pictures gleaming as the yellow glow that comes off a large, smooth, golden object in a darkened room. But glow is more properly what a light source itself does; not reflecting light, like gleaming, but creating it: shine, beam, radiate.
Glimmer has movement too, but more the failure of your eyes to see something disappearing and reappearing; while its cousin shimmer has movement of a different sort, feeling more side-to-side. Or perhaps that’s shimmy I’m thinking of 🙂 (and glimpse).
Twinkle, sparkle again are repeated, sharp, two-syllable, hard consonant, flashes that repeat. Is sparkle reflected light while twinkle should be the light source itself? Nursery rhymes of stars would have it so. Flash itself is short, sharp, but without the hard consonants. Glint is quick but smaller, perhaps. Because of reflection, again? Every light loses brightness when reflected, shedding some of its brilliance as it bounces off the intervening surface. Or the moon would blind us, instead of just showing us how it sees our shared sun. Pretty flicker goes back and forth, friendly like a candle.
Why so many gl- beginnings in our words for light? Root words are one answer: Higueras and Clavera (2002) name two, Middle English glymsen, “to shine faintly or intermittently,” and Middle Low German glaren, “to gleam.” Sadowski (2001) compared modern English gl- root words and concluded more than half connoted light/dark or looking/seeing (with more related to smoothness, like glossy, plus glamour originally related to how something is perceived and glory also connected to light). Some scholars have even “argued the existence of sound and color patterns, whereby back vowels tend to denote dark colours (as in gloom or glum) and front vowels tend to be ‘bright’ (gleam, glitter, glimmer, etc.)” (Sadowski citing Jespersen 1922 and Jakobson 1979; front vowels being those pronounced with the tongue forward in the mouth and vice versa).
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