The word levity is defined as a lightness of mind, character, or behaviour. Although this signifies a certain freedom from care, it can also be used to describe frivolous or fickle character. Levity has been used as a description of moral or mental qualities, but it can also be used in a physical sense, though more prevalently archaic. It describes the physical quality of weight in an object. An object with comparatively little weight has the physical quality of levity. However, this definition is rarely used because today’s standard is to use gravity as a measure. Levity can be measured, but only in relation to the effect of gravity on the object. To try to measure it would be useless, extra work. Therefore the usage of levity in a physical sense has diminished since the late 19th century. Levity was used to describe a lightness of movement or agility, but has also fallen into disuse.
The root of the word levity comes from the combination of the Latin words levis, meaning light, and –itās, as the usual form for the suffix –ity. The root word levitās also appears in levitation, alleviate, relieve, and elevate, all words with connotations of lightness of weight. The Latin root levis comes from the original Proto-Indo-European root legwh which went on to become the Russian word lëgkiy and the English word light. In this case, light refers to the weight of an object and not illumination. The word lung also came from the root legwh because the organ floated in water, indicating lightness. Levitas is also the root word of the Old French levité and the Italian, levità. Both words mean lightness of weight.
Levity, when used, commonly has inappropriate or frivolous undertones to it. Because it is most often used as a treatment of a serious matter with humour, it can come off carelessly. Levity attempts to lift up or lighten the mood of a setting or situation. For example, the use of levity would be appropriate to the start of a Monday morning class or after a fight between friends. In the case of a Monday morning class, the use of humour attracts the attention of the class and lifts up the tired mood. After a fight between friends, levity attempts to treat the matter with humour, purposely coming off carelessly. When used inappropriately, levity can actually make a serious matter worse. Although intentions may be good, it doesn’t always come off well. For example, the use of levity after a disaster such as the 9/11 attack might not be a good idea. It is not accepted well by those directly affected by the disaster due to trauma or other circumstance. There are certain times when levity should be used and when it shouldn’t. In all cases, it is up to the user’s discretion to determine appropriateness.
1. “Levity,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed November 18, 2012 http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=levity&allowed_in_frame=0
2. “Levity,” Oxford English Dictionary, accessed November 18, 2012 http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.uwaterloo.ca/view/Entry/107720?rskey=wFC9wt&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid
3. “Lung,” Edenics, accessed November 18, 2012 http://www.edenics.net/english-word-origins.aspx?word=LUNG