Where These Common Sayings About Light Come From

Light is so fundamental to life that it has worked its way into the language. Do you know the origins of these common sayings to do with light, daytime and the night?

Light is associated with revealing – to bring something to light, to see the light, to shed light or cast light on something. An embarrassing text or photo must never “see the light of day.” 

To see an issue “in the cold light of day” is to be less emotional and get a bit of distance. The event in question is hinted to have taken place at night, a time when passions run higher and judgement is more clouded. Or when you might have been “seeing red” – the colour of passion, danger, and blood. The opposite of the cold blue daylight this red colour probably comes from the colour of a matador’s cape – “like a red rag to a bull” – designed to infuriate.

A candle in the darkness

Colleagues staying at work late or working late into the night at home are “burning the midnight oil” and it literally means to be still working at midnight, by oil lamp or candle. In fact, there used to be a verb precisely for that – elucubrate. We might not use that one any more but burning the midnight oil is still a common expression harking back to our pre-electric days.

When someone is said to be “burning the candle at both ends” you know they are going really flat out. It’s not healthy and it’s probably not sane. But where does the saying come from? Wicks on candles used to be loose at both ends and by turning the candle sideways it is indeed possible to burn it at both ends for double the light, or energy. But beware, a candle burning at both ends will get used up quickly.

Technology has moved on and we no longer rely on daylight to get things done. The sayings above have been around for hundreds of years and in that time the advent of electricity revolutionised the world. We can see just as easily in the night but it’s not entirely good for us. You can find out more about the downsides and health risks of artificial light in blue light explained.

Do you know any other sayings about light?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!


Frances F
Frances F

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