Posted by TheFallen on March 21, 2003
In Reply to: Cowl-light posted by Lewis (again) on March 21, 2003
: : : : : : Hello, I was just wondering whether any one else might have encountered the word "cowl-light", and if so, if you might know what its meaning and origin are.
: : : : : : Thanks in advance for any help.
: : : : : How was the phrase used? Googling the phrase produces references to auto parts. Merriam-Webster Online says a "cowl" is "the top portion of the front part of an automobile body forward of the two front doors to which are attached the windshield and instrument board."
: : : : Thanks. I don't remember the exact context, but I think it had some thing to do with a police car.
: : : I'm pretty sure that you can cowl a lantern, so that it only illuminates a small area of what is directly in front of it, and also so that its light may only be seen if viewed directly from the front. I have some memory of cowled lanterns being favoured by burglars of a long bygone age.
: : On the other hand, a cowl-light may be no more than what we'd call a dashboard light. Numerous cars with illuminated speedometers/rev counters have these recessed some way into the instrument panel, with a projecting "hood" extending a little way out over the top of them, presumably to prevent any reflection from being created on the interior of the windscreen(-shield).
: A cowl is a hood on (particularly) a religious vestment. a cowling is also the word used for the top of a flue. a hooded (or "cowled", I deduce) lantern was one where an obstruction could (usually) rotate to block some or all of the light. a "dark" lantern was another description of such a device. usually it worked by having two concentric cylinders, one of which had could block the gap in the other by rotation.
: Patricia Cornwell talks about similar lanterns (bull's eye lanterns) in her book on Jack the Ripper.
: alternatively, it could mean the candle-light that would surround monks wearing cowls.
Lewis is onto something here, with his adding of the rotation concept. 30 or so years ago, in the UK at least, police cars did indeed have a revolving light on the top. The light was directional, so as it rotated, it seemed to flash - although it never actually went out. So, I'd bet that a cowl-light was one of those old style lights on top of the roof of a police car.