Light, bright, and sparkling: the language of light
The UN has declared 2015 to be the ‘International Year of Light’, so we thought that was a good opportunity to look at the language of light. Unsurprisingly, light is a very old word. It appears at the beginning of one of the oldest texts in English – Aelfric’s translation of Genesis – in the famous passage ‘let there be light’ (in Old English geweorðe leoht). The word (when meaning ‘not dark’) ultimately derives from the same Indo-European root as Greek leukos (white) and the Latin lux (light). And light with this sense has even been spelt the same way(s) as light meaning ‘not heavy’ since they both appeared in English, despite coming from different Indo-European roots. (The latter shares a root with the modern English lung, which accounts for the lungs of sheep, pigs, or bullocks being known as lights when used as food, especially for pets.)
Speaking of light
There are plenty of expressions in English and other languages which involve the light; let’s take a look at some of them…
Many are metaphorically connected with light making things easier to see – the reason, indeed, that most of us use light. Secrets come to light or are brought into the light; information sheds, casts, or throws light on conundrums. Ideas see the light of day, while facts are clear as day – or como la luz del dí (‘like the light of day’) in Spanish; also in Spanish, books are said to be ver la luz (‘see the light’) when published. (Incidentally, a Spanish bullfighter would traditionally wear a traje de luces ‘suit of lights’, so-called because of the sequences and reflective silver and gold threads attached to it.)
This clarity (a word connected with light and brightness before its association with intelligibility) is echoed in expressions which use light in reference to perspective and understanding. Decisions can be made in light of recent events. People can be shown in (among others) a good light, a bad light, a different light, or a false light; in German, to give a false impression is to in ein falsches Licht geraten (‘fall into a false light’). If people reveal something about their character, they are seen in their true light (or visto nella tua vera luce in Italian, which also uses mettersi in luce ‘get in the light’ to mean ‘draw attention to oneself’).
I need your lights
A person’s consciousness is also metaphorically represented as light. To knock someone unconscious is to punch their lights out. The insult the lights are on but nobody’s home is used to suggest that a person lacks intelligence or awareness; in this instance the light seems to indicate mere sentience, and the phrase borrows the image of an empty (but lit) house. The ease with which a candle can be extinguished (or, later, domestic electric lights can be turned off) gave rise to the expression to go out like a light: to fall asleep quickly. This perhaps takes place at lights out (bedtime in a school dormitory, military barracks, or other institution, when lights should be switched off).
In French, lumières is used to mean the opinions and knowledge of an individual’s intellect – for example, in the sentence J’ai besoin de vos lumières (‘I need your lights’) which has the English equivalent ‘I need to pick your brains’. In the same vein, aider [quelqu’un] de ses lumières (‘help [somebody] to his lights’) is to give somebody the benefit of one’s wisdom, and to avoir des lumières (‘have the lights’) on something is to have knowledge of a subject. Similarly, if someone tiene pocas luces (‘has few lights’) in Spanish, they are dim-witted – or, indeed, not bright.
If it is said in French that somebody is not a light (ce n’est pas une lumière), then they will not amount to much – or, to use an English expression also relating to light, albeit more dramatically, they’ll never set the world on fire. In English, the word light most commonly relates to knowledge when found in the word enlighten: ‘give someone greater knowledge and understanding about a subject or situation’. The Enlightenment or the Age of Enlightenment are terms often used to refer to a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition.
A ray of light
Light is also often a stand-in for general hope, goodness, or positivity. The light at the end of the tunnel (a metaphor drawn from railways) is in indication that a long period of difficulty is nearing an end, while a face lights up when displaying a happy smile. It is the greatest compliment to call somebody the light of my life, and a leading light is a person who is prominent or influential in a particular field or organization. Contrarily, to stand in a person’s light is to block them from attention or benefit.
Hiding one’s light under a bushel means to ‘keep quiet about one’s talents or accomplishments’ – but what is a bushel? Well, in British English it’s a measure of capacity equal to 8 gallons used for corn, fruit, liquids etc., while in American English it is equal to 64 US pints and used for dry goods. A bushel also used to be a container which held this measurement – and that is the container one is advised not hide one’s light under, with reference to the Bible:
Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 5:15, King James Version)
Another common expression, sweetness and light, is also a quotation; it means ‘good-natured benevolence’ or ‘social or political harmony’ – for example, ‘their relationship was all sweetness and light for the time being’ – and comes from A Tale of a Tub (1704) by the British satirist Jonathan Swift. Swift wrote: ‘Instead of Dirt and Poison, we have rather chose to fill our Hives with Honey and Wax, thus furnishing Mankind with the two Noblest of Things, which are Sweetness and Light.’ The current moral sense of sweetness and light developed when reference was made to Swift’s work by Matthew Arnold in 1869’s Culture and Anarchy.
And that is, of course, just touching the surface of the heavy work light does in idioms around the world…