Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Light Up: A Linguistic Illumination

2015 is the International Year of Light. The designation is an initiative of the United Nations, which has long record of international-years-of. This year's observance is "designed to highlight the key role light and optical technologies play in our daily lives and their importance for our future and for the sustainable development of the society we live in." The Language Lounge will observe the solemnity of the occasion in a more low-tech way, by taking up the idea of light in language. It's one of the most productive concepts for metaphor in English.

Before peering further down this illuminated path, let's first clear up a confusion that's unique to English, since it actually has two different words represented by the spelling l-i-g-h-t: there's the light that is opposite to heavy (a subject for another day), and the light that is opposite to dark, which is the focus of the International Year of Light.

Let's start at the very beginning. In the Judaeo-Christian account of creation, God created a big dark place but he wasn't prepared to do anything with it till he turned the lights on — a feat that he accomplished through a performative speech act, the like of which has never been duplicated. This is rendered in English as "Let there be light," in German as "Es werde licht," and in Hebrew, the original, as אור יהי, making "light" the second, third, or fourth word to issue from the lips of the Almighty, but by any account, the first content word that God bestowed on his creation. Seen in that context, how could light not be fundamental to everything that we experience?

Everything we see, of course, is dependent on the presence of light, and it is this fact that lays the groundwork for many metaphoric equations, in which the constant elements are light and vision as the sources, knowledge and understanding as the targets. To "see" something is to understand or comprehend it. "Light," in such idioms as "shed light," "shine a light on something," "bring something to light," and "see the light," represents not a physical but a cognitive phenomenon that suggests clarity, understanding, and information. Lakoff and Johnson, in their foundational work Metaphors We Live By, identify this collection of concepts thus:

Understanding is seeing; ideas are light sources; discourse is a light-medium

I see what you're saying. It looks different from my point of view. What is your outlook on that? I view it differently. Now I've got the whole picture. Let me point something out to you. That's an insightful idea. That was a brilliant remark. The argument is clear. It was a murky discussion. Could you elucidate your remarks? It's a transparent argument. The discussion was opaque.

In her famous autobiography The Story of My Life, Helen Keller, deaf and blind from infancy, regularly uses see, light, and other related metaphors perhaps as frequently as any other writer would, and it is instructive to look at the ways in which these tropes fully inform her language, even though as an adult she retained no memories of the faculty of sight that she enjoyed for only a few months after birth.

Indeed, there is hardly a noun, verb, or adjective in English with a core meaning arising from light and vision that cannot be used in metaphoric extension to depict knowledge and understanding. Back in 2011 I looked at the language of mottos and discovered that "light," in English or in some inflection of Latin lux or lumen, was one of the most common words in the mottos of various institutions — particularly institutions of learning, owing to the pervasive metaphor of light as knowledge.

When you illustrate something, you either supply it with illustrations or give a clarifying example, in order to bring greater understanding. The word underlying illustrate is luster, a word that denotes the quality of something that shines with reflected light. Luster, in turn, is from a Latin lustrare, "to brighten." Illumine and illuminate (literally, "make bright or brighter") are even closer to the "light source," both being derived from Latin lumen. The metaphoric usage of these is brilliantly illustrated (if I may) in the well-known 19th century hymn by Clara Scott, "Open My Eyes That I May See":

Open my eyes that I may see
Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for Thee,
Ready, my God, Thy will to see;
Open my eyes, illumine me,
Spirit Divine!

English did not learn about the metaphoric extension of light and related metaphors from Latin descendants. Consider, for example, behold, one of English's ur-verbs, dating from the 9th century. It has a twofold core meaning: "to regard with the mind," and "to hold or keep in view." Likewise with "bright," an English word of Germanic origin whose core meaning is "radiating or reflecting light," and whose common metaphoric meaning is "quick-witted or intelligent."

If you do an Internet image search on "bright idea" you'll get a page full of drawings like the one on the left that illustrate the cliché of an idea represented as a lit bulb. The imagery is so well known, certainly in English, and perhaps in other languages, that no caption is necessary: it symbolizes the sudden arising of a new idea, or of understanding something that was previously puzzling. This  same idea is present in German, for example, in the expression "Mir geht ein licht auf," literally "A light goes on for me," but with the meaning "it dawns on me" or "I get it." An image search on that German phrase brings up exactly the same sort of images as "bright idea," including this one which captures the idea particularly well:

A  project underway at the University of California (Berkeley) is MetaNet, an ambitious attempt to develop a multilingual repository of metaphors that are common across languages.  Till the bright day when that project can report some progress and catalog the forms of light metaphors across languages, it would be interesting — indeed, enlightening — to  hear from readers who are speakers of other languages whether these metaphors that pervade English are also found in equal profusion in languages not closely related to English. What light can you bring?

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Monday February 2nd 2015, 9:41 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
Interesting, thanks!

BTW: even knowing might be related with seeing... English 'wit', Dutch 'weten', German 'wissen', seem to be based on the Latin 'videre'...

Just look for 'light' at, and you will find a wealth of words referring to light...
Monday February 2nd 2015, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Lawrence P. (North Billerica, MA)
might it spread this illumination about the metaphors of light more widely, and of the presence of the clarifying services provided by Visual Thesaurus - if we readers had the option of sharing same on Facebook? [as most other sites now do]

brightly yours, pip [a user of your services here - ]
Monday February 2nd 2015, 12:04 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
ThomasK: a good point that I had not considered. Perhaps this idea comes together in the word evidence, a word that means, roughly "basis for knowleddge or belief." Etymologically, it resolves to "from what is seen"

Lawrence P: great idea!
Monday February 2nd 2015, 1:17 PM
Comment by: ThomasK
@Orin H: tells me that 'evidence' refers to 'apparent'. The 'wit'/ 'weten' root is older, I think.

BTW: verbs of explaining/ clarifying often refer to light (or to setting free [from chaos], as is suggested by the ex-). I was lost told by a Korean lady that their word for explaining contains the sun/moon ideogram, and in Slavic languages there is a reference to sunshine in those verbs, if I am not mistaken... ('Illuminate' fits into that series too of course...)
Friday February 6th 2015, 8:22 AM
Comment by: Victoria W. (Princeton, NJ)
Such an interesting essay! I used it as the basis for a short article on my website today-- Delving into these metaphors is revelatory, when they are so pervasive we hardly notice them any more! Thank you for this post.
Friday February 6th 2015, 8:28 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Open my eyes that I might see,
Visions of truth Thou hast for me...

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.