The sunny side of our language

I’ve just published a book about Sunshine. ‘What about sunshine?’ you’ll probably say, if you’re like many I have told. If the sun is shining, I’ll gesture to the rare spectacle of English men and woman out of their castles and shells enjoying life in the open. If it’s not, I merely point to the huddled up hordes sludging through the elements, their faces as grey as the skies. That about sunshine, I say; and the difference it makes to our lives. I’ve tried to scrutinise, anatomise and historicise why we love the sun and the impact that this has on us. Between biology, history and cultural association is a tangled skein binding us to that distant star. I’ve tried to unpick it. Bizarrely this is the first book to attempt to write a cultural history of that upon which all creation depends, and our language reveals a lot about this relationship

The sun is everywhere, once you notice it. Symbolically central, because so often physically absent. It’s there in pub signs, in trademarks (more of these use the sun in the UK than the cross, the crown or the flag), and in the lyrics of pop songs. I’d say one in five pop songs uses weather imagery to convey the highs and lows of love. It’s the perfect emotional barometer in our culture, and has been since at least Shakespeare. His sonnet ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day’ is really a metrical moan about our weather (as befits the national poet), disguised as a love lyric. And it’s everywhere in our language. Try using the language of emotion, of enlightenment or spirituality without revealing a leaning towards the light. And try explaining the relationship between sunshine and happiness using English without getting lost in a metaphorical hall of mirrors.

The problem is the word sunshine actually means happiness. After the literal meaning of sunlight not obscured by clouds, the Oxford English Dictionary defines sunshine as ‘a source of happiness or prosperity; a favourable or gracious influence’. I also found that the first uses of the word in The Times Digital Archive, from the early 18th century were all figurative. The first literal use was in the Victorian period. This association survives today. I searched under ‘happiness’ in the Getty Picture Library, and the majority of images used or referred to sunshine to convey the emotion. Unhappiness yielded the opposite. I asked people to draw a symbol for happiness that was not a smiley face. Fifty-two per cent drew the sun, and it was the only serious contender. I do explain why in the book (even attempting some science); as well as the story of how we went from avoiding the sun to basking in it and then back again (officially); and lots more besides. But there’s no room for that here.

Being a 26er I’m talking about language, and what this reveals about our relationship with the star that rules our days. Of course this all goes way back. Since God said Let There Be Light, nearly every culture has paid homage to its source. Yet, there were significant differences across time and latitude. For a start, whilst in French, Italian and Spanish the same word is used for both heaven and the sky (ceil in French is also a beautiful shade of blue), our word derives from the Old Norse for cloud. I find that fact rather depressing, but also revealing about our outlook (in all senses).

But then there’s the other side of our relationship enshrined in the fact that most northern cultures still name their sacred day after the sun, while the southern Romance cultures have re-branded it the Lord’s day (Domingo, Dimanche, etc.). You only need to witness those same northern nations locked in fervent devotion on the beaches of the Med to understand how pagan adoration is alive and well from Stockport to Stockholm. And whilst Romance languages tend to use the same word for time and the weather – suggesting something you can depend upon – even our word sounds like a question. Weather permitting. Truly, it could be our national catch phrase.

I must say talking about a single subject, however multi-faceted, over nearly 300 pages did rather tax my powers of expression. And I did begin to wonder how a copywriter for a holiday company manages to vary his or her copy when selling the sun. Sunshine is a commodity, a highly prized one, and over 70% of leisure travel from this country is in search of it. But how do you differentiate when the same sun shines on the Maldives and Malibu, Marbella and Margate (sometimes)? But then, this is one area of commerce where we are happy to be sold clichés.

Paradise is a cliché, but it doesn’t stop us day dreaming of it in glorious Technicolour. Give us azure sea and skies, palm trees and golden sands and we couldn’t be happier. And who can resist a sunset? Certainly not the 2 million who flocked to bask under the industrial scale SAD lamp that was The weather project at London’s Tate Modern back in 2003. The biggest footfall for an exhibition there then or since.

Many things draw us towards that star. Sunshine is the result of my quest to explain them.

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