Alighting the escalator: a transitive in transit

The other day I saw this sign at a railway station:

Sign at Euston station: “When you alight the escalator keep moving forward”

Sign at Euston station: “When you alight the escalator keep moving forward”

Sorry the photo’s a bit blurry, but funnily enough I was on a moving escalator at the time.

When I saw it I thought: “‘Alight the escalator’? What in the name of Samuel Johnson’s gout-ridden ghost is this sorry abomination? Shouldn’t it be ‘alight from the escalator’?”

I hadn’t ever seen “alight” as a transitive, non-phrasal verb before. So, after apologising to the people I knocked over when I stopped to take the picture, I ran to the dictionaries – Oxford, Collins, Chambers, Macmillan, American Heritage, Merriam-Webster – but none of them had this transitive usage.

The norm is “alight from”, although the OED notes some historical uses of “alight out of”, “alight down from” and “alight off”.

So, is “alight the escalator” a quirk of one sign writer or an up-and-coming innovation? Or maybe even a nonstandard usage that has been rumbling along unnoticed for a long time?

It makes me think of “depart”, which is another official-sounding word strongly associated with transport signs and announcements, and which is increasingly being used transitively without a “from” (compare “depart from the station” and “depart the station”). But from what I can tell, transitive “alight” is a lot rarer than transitive “depart”.

When I started looking into usage of the verb “alight”, I found something surprising: there isn’t much. I already knew it was one of those quaintly formal bits of transport-speak, even more so than “depart”, but I hadn’t realised just how rare it is.

In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a record of 520 million words used during 1990–2015), I found just 34 instances of “alighting/alighted from the”. There was one transitive, without the “from”.

In the Glowbe corpus of online usage, 774 million words from US and UK websites contained just 16 uses of “alighted/alighting from the” and five of “alighted/alighting the”.

These are tiny numbers.

A search of Google Books produced more examples of both. Uses of “alight/alighting/alighted from the train” massively outnumber those of “alight/alighting/alighted the train”. But still, the vast majority of the latter were results like “after you alight, the train will pull away” and “I should not have alighted. The train was gone…”

Most of the definite examples of transitive “alight the train” that I could find were post-2000. The earliest was in a US Congressional committee report from 1975.

So it seems that transitive “alight” is flitting around the edges of usage. If it starts to catch on, it will find itself pursued by a mob of angry pedants with plasticine pitchforks.

Like it or not (and I don’t), I think it could spread fast. When a word’s use is dominated by a small group – such as railway staff – there’s more scope for idiosyncrasy in that group to change that use. If signs like the one I saw appear across the country, and if announcements follow suit, that will set the tone for the rest of us.

But who knows? Anyway, there’s a bit more to this story: the beginning.

The earliest “alight from” in the OED’s records is from 1477, in William Caxton’s translation of Raoul Le Fèvre: “Peleus and Iason were alighted from their hors.” But “alight of” and other variations go back all the way to Old English, the first in the OED being from Ælfric of Eynsham in the late 900s: “Ic geseah þurh Godes gast, þa se þegen alihte of his cræte” (I saw through the Spirit of God that the officer alighted of his chariot).

And here’s the funny thing. Back then, there was a transitive sense of “alight”. It’s been obsolete since the 1600s, but it meant “to make light, or less heavy; to lighten, alleviate (a burden); to relieve (a person) of a burden”.

Here’s an early example, also from Ælfric: “a ealdan cyningas on ðam aerran timan hogodon hu hi mihton heora byrðena alihtan forþan ðe an man ne mæg æghwar beon” (the old kings in previous times thought about how they might alight their burden, for one man cannot be everywhere).

And one from Reginald Pecock in 1449: “for this cause of aliȝting the poor men it is alloweable and profitable, that lordis and ladies haue mansiouns with inne the cloocis gatis”.

These two are figurative uses, but it could be literal as well: if you got off your horse, you would make it lighter; you would relieve it of its burden; you would alight it.

And if there had been an escalator around for you to get off, you would have alighted that too.

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  • popegrutch  On October 23, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    I tend to think of “alight” as a piece of British English that hasn’t effectively crossed the pond, though OED provided you with a US example above. It would be interesting to know the regional breakdown on usage.

  • Andrew Ingram  On October 24, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    Railspeak continued: on GWR trains the announcer tells you that information is “to be found in the vestibule”, which bewilders most people

  • Andrew Saffrey  On October 27, 2017 at 6:52 am

    I do actually like the use of alight in the transitive form. It makes for snappier text, which on a notice to be read quickly is all to the good. The fewer words the better is always a good maxim when writing.

  • Nicholas Bennett  On November 1, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    I’m always annoyed by the term ‘personal belongings’ as please ensure you take your personal belongings when leaving the train. Which bit on belonging is not personal?

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