We live in an age where most major cities worldwide will have some degree of English guidance, regardless of how commonly the language is spoken. This really helps to take the stress out of traveling through these cities. Unfortunately, sometimes the language used in signage is not in common use, and may lead to some unnecessary confusion! Here’s a fun example!
Taiwanese buses work in mysterious ways. Depending on the route, some buses require you to pay when getting on the bus. Others ask for payment when getting off, and in the case of longer routes, some require payment both when boarding and when disembarking. In case of the final instance, you generally learn your first time after you attempt to disembark and the bus driver calls out to you to pay again. In most cases, however, you can tell either way by looking for the sign below while boarding:
Photo source: www.formosaguide.com
Obviously, whichever sign is lit up will indicate to you when to pay. The problem is that the word “alighting” is apparently not the most commonly-used word in the English language. Personally I always assumed would have meant the same as “boarding”. The terms that I am most comfortable reading as getting out of a vehicle would be “getting off” and “disembarking”. You probably could have guessed this from my previous paragraph.
Apparently, this is Google’s definition of the origin of “alight”:
Old English: ālīhtan, from ā- (as an intensifier) + līhtan ‘descend’ (see light).
So the term “alighting” insofar as meaning is exactly the same as the term “descending”. The bus was unequivocally right, and I was wrong! And I’m supposed to be a trained linguist!
For me, as someone with a background of fluent Japanese, the Chinese characters above the English helped to reaffirm which was which. Obviously, the character meaning “up” (上) would mean “get on”, and the character meaning “down” (下) would mean “get off”. But until I actually looked up the definition of “alighting” just now I could have sworn “alighting” meant what I thought it did. Is it more common in American English? I’m not sure. I thought I was alone with this confusion concerning my lexicon for months. Apparently though, I’ve had company this whole time.
Other native English speakers who I’ve confided in about my “alighting” awkwardness have so far all confessed to have had the same bizarrely jarring experience when they first used buses here. Then today I talked to some European friends of mine, both who had assumed different definitions and etymology for the term:
My Norwegian-speaking friend was convinced, like me, that “alighting” referred to boarding the bus. His logic was that “lighting up” was a common phrase, and the word “up” was more closely associated to “boarding” than “disembarking”. Makes sense!
My German-speaking friend had correctly concluded that the term “alighting” referred to “disembarking”. However, he was coming at it from the idea of (the bus) becoming lighter, rather than the Old English “descending”. He was also helped along by thinking of the German phrase “sich erleichtern”, which is slang for “taking a piss” but which implies getting lighter as a result of emptying your bladder.
It’s fascinating that we all came at this uncommon English word from entirely different angles. Honestly though, it still reflects poorly on me as the only non-native English speaker!