Word of the Day




1.a bright light or fire that shines in the dark and is used as a signal to warn people against danger or to show them the way somewhere

2. someone or something that encourages people and gives them a good example to follow

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun beacon comes from the Old English ‘béacn’. The word is a very ancient one, first used in English at the end of the first millennium, in meanings that are no longer used. The first use of the main current meaning dates from the 14th century, while the first recorded example of the figurative use comes from Shakespeare’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’.


Beacons were used in the past to warn of danger or as a signal, and sometimes as a sign of celebration, something they are still occasionally used for today. Beacons are used to warn ships that they are close to land, while a radio or radar signal that helps ships or aircraft to find their position is also called a beacon. In the UK a Belisha beacon is a post with a round orange light on top that flashes on and off, used to warn drivers that there is a pedestrian crossing: they are named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, who was a transport minister in the 1930s when the beacons were introduced. Beacon is also used as the name for some hills, especially ones where a beacon could be located in the past. The Brecon Beacons are a range of mountains that lie to the south of the town of Brecon in South Wales. When used figuratively, beacon has an overwhelmingly positive connotation: you can describe someone or something as a beacon of hope, freedom, democracy, liberty, enlightenment and many other positive things.


“A mother’s happiness is like a beacon, lighting up the future but reflected also on the past in the guise of fond memories.”
(Honoré de Balzac)

“England was full of words I’d never heard before – streaky bacon, short back and sides, Belisha beacon, serviettes, high tea, ice-cream cornet.”
(Bill Bryson)

Related words

alarm, foghorn, gong, siren

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

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