Definition of "lit" in The Cat in the Hat
October 12, 2007 3:07 AM   Subscribe

SeussFilter: what does Said our fish as he lit mean?

I have been reading The Cat in the Hat almost daily to my baby for the past six months . And I'm still none the wiser what “lit” means in the following passage:

And our fish came down, too.
He fell into a pot!
He said, “Do I like this?
Oh, no! I do not.
This is not a good game,”
Said our fish as he lit.
“No, I do not like it,
Not one little bit!”
posted by puffmoike to Media & Arts (16 answers total)
Best answer: alighted
posted by beniamino at 3:18 AM on October 12, 2007

I would take it be a form of alit, which is the past participle of alight

i.e 'said our fish as he landed (in the pot)'.
posted by Jakey at 3:20 AM on October 12, 2007

It is not a form of alight, or alit. It's the simple past of the verb "light", which is an intransitive verb, meaning to settle down or land.

The conjugation is: light, lit, lit.
posted by strangeguitars at 4:05 AM on October 12, 2007

The very last entry on this page has an example sentence. Look at sense 2.
posted by strangeguitars at 4:09 AM on October 12, 2007

The way I first read it, I assumed it was the old usage, 'lit out for', as in, 'left in a rush'. (e.g. "Harry lit out for town when he heard there was a new batch of moonshine ready.")

But I think it would, at least, require the 'out'.... the other explanations seem more likely to me.
posted by Malor at 4:46 AM on October 12, 2007

Nah, it doesn't require the out to mean "lit outta here."
posted by limeonaire at 5:12 AM on October 12, 2007

Ahh, but I now actually clicked the link that was best-answered. So the fish settled down to/landed on the floor.
posted by limeonaire at 5:13 AM on October 12, 2007

Response by poster: strangeguitars — I'm certainly no etymologist, but doesn't the very source you quoted indicate that 'light' is simply an alternate form of 'alight'?

Either way, thanks to all for clearing this up. Not understanding one of the most universally loved books for young children had the potential to be more than a little embarrassing: 'Dad—what does ...'
posted by puffmoike at 6:16 AM on October 12, 2007

I thought the fish actually lit on the edge of the pot/bowl. I could have sworn I remembered seeing a picture or animation of the fish balancing on the edge of the bowl, which is more what I thought alit to mean.
posted by sociolibrarian at 6:18 AM on October 12, 2007

Those of us who learned grammar from a certain strictness of teacher know that lit is the past tense of the word light (a bird landing on a branch), while the past tense of the word light (put flame to candle) is lighted.

While I do admit to being a bit prescriptivist, even I acknowledge that lamps may be lit.

Out of habit, I still say lighted, though. Hi, Mr. Kearney, wherever you are.
posted by desuetude at 6:21 AM on October 12, 2007

Unless the fish was suicidal, it probably didn't light the stove under the pot it was sitting in. I'd go with the alighted folks.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:45 AM on October 12, 2007

I read that book a million times to my daughter. One of the last times I read it to her, I read that page and she said "boy that fish is pissed." I always assumed "lit" meant "angry." Cool thread!
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 7:03 AM on October 12, 2007

According to the OED, the verb "light" means "fall or land on", and the past participle of this word is "lit". The same source defines "alight" as "[formal, chiefly Brit.] descend from public transport". The origin of both words is the Old English "a" (as an intensifier) and "lihtan" meaning descend. I think this strongly suggests that the verb Dr. Seuss was using is "light".

Also, "alit" rhymes with "bit" just as nicely as "lit," so if Dr. Seuss intended to use that verb, the line would read "Said our fish as he alit".
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 7:16 AM on October 12, 2007

"Alit" may well rhyme, but it jacks up the meter, which is central to that Seussian feel. Thus, it's perfectly reasonable to think that he wanted "alit" but chose to shorten it to "lit" to save a syllable. (Although I'd tend to agree that he was probably going for "lit" anyway.)
posted by donnagirl at 7:35 AM on October 12, 2007


lit, lighted, lighting
1. Said especially of birds: to come to rest after flight.

Etymology: Anglo-Saxon lihtan, to alight.

Phrasal Verb: light on or upon something
To come upon or find it by chance.
Example: suddenly lit upon the idea


lit1 past tense, past participle of light1light3

Agreed that it's the past tense of "light" for "rest upon." It is somewhat confusing, but there's another sense of light that is modified by "out," as when Huck Finn says:
I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.
In the past tense, Huck would say "I lit out for the territory." But I'd argue that without the addition of "out," light/lit, in this context, means to rest upon.

Dr. Suess wouldn't use "alit" for a couple of reasons: one is that (as Donnagirl says) he would definitely not mess up his meter, upon which the hypnotic quality of his writing depends, and another is that "alight/alit" was already archaic by the time he was writing. The a is called a perfective prefix, helping to indicate that the action in the verb is completed, but this usage was falling out of favor in the 20th century when people more commonly formed the past tense differently ("awakened" became "woke up," "abloom" became "in bloom," "await" became "wait.") I'm sure a better grammatician can shed some more light on this, but Dr. Suess is almost certainly using "lit" to mean "rest upon," and the illustration of the fish balanced on the rim indicates that he envisioned it exactly that way.
posted by Miko at 9:30 AM on October 12, 2007

puffmoike -- It uses "alight" as a definition. For the etymology, what A Long and Troublesome Lameness said.
posted by strangeguitars at 1:54 AM on October 13, 2007

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