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What’s a Luminaire (and Why Don’t We Know)?

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lamps,Lighting,lighting fixtures

The word “luminaire” is a technical term for a lighting fixture that features a replaceable bulb, so you could call almost any electrical light source a luminaire and you’d be right.

So, why don’t we call lights luminaires anymore?

Luminaire: Word History

It’s certainly not for a lack of style – "luminaire" is a way cooler name for a light, even if it does fall on the fancy side of the fence. But, as you are surely aware, the term isn’t a part of everyday speech.

The French are responsible for the word, which was first recorded in use in 1921, but even they don’t use it to describe lighting. The closest they get is lumiere, and even that isn’t used as often as other words they have for their lighting.

Luminaire: Industry Terminology

The reason we don’t use it to describe our lighting is because it never reached beyond the industry for which it was adopted, at least in the U.S.

The most recent National Electric Code (2002) makes great use of the word, and even defines it for those who’ve never heard it used – which amounts to pretty much everyone. And, as boring as the NEC may be, it ensures our electrical devices are a) safe and b) compatible with our home outlets and available voltage.

But, the NEC wasn’t the word’s first debut. It started in 1922 with an organization called the Illuminating Engineering Society.

Luminaire: The Illuminating Engineering Society

The IES was formed in New York in 1907 to “advance the art, science, and practice of illumination by investigation, evaluation, and dissemination of knowledge to consumers, producers, and general interest groups through education, literary, and scientific means,” and that’s what they continue to do to this day.

And, back in 1920s, the lighting industry was still in the business of defining things.

While the word “luminaire” isn’t even used in the current IES charter, it was the IES that formally adopted the term to replace the phrase “lighting fixture” throughout the lighting industry. The adoption was announced in Electrical World magazine in 1922, along with an oddly thorough explanation for why other words weren’t cutting the mustard.

Luminaire: Present Day

Reading the history, you get the impression a very motivated group of lighting engineers really, really wanted this word to get into circulation. They had their reasons, it seems, but it just didn’t catch on.

It’s a sad fate for such a cool piece of lingo, but if you start describing your lighting fixtures as luminaires, maybe the word will spread ... so to speak.

A luminaire in more than name, this wall sconce from Quintana Roo plugs in for easy installation. 

It may be that crystal best captures the history of the luminaire, especially when it comes from Warehouse of Tiffany.

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