A Light Bulb Went Off.

Ben Yagoda writes in Lingua Franca about some of his recent linguistic investigations, beginning with an enthusiastic paragraph to which I nodded enthusiastic assent:

When William Wordsworth wrote, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,” he was referring to his youthful experiencing of the French Revolution, albeit from afar. Today doesn’t seem like a particularly blissful time, but if you research language usage as a job, pastime, or somewhere in between, this is a Golden Age. Proprietary resources like the online Oxford English Dictionary, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, newspapers.com, and The New York Times and New Yorker archives, and free ones like Twitter, Wikipedia, and Wiktionary, the BYU Corpora, Urban Dictionary, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database of historic newspapers, and Google’s quartet — its search engine, Google Books, Google News, and Ngram Viewer — make it possible to almost instantaneously learn more about current and historical language trends than would have even been thought possible 25 years ago, all while sitting on your butt.

(BYU Corpora looks great!) He goes on to discuss the phrase “the suits” (referring to executives) and the many terms for “the strip of land between the sidewalk and the street” (e.g., “tree lawn”; I have a feeling the subject has come up before at LH), but what I want to focus on here is a tweet he cites complaining about the phrase “a light bulb went off,” saying it should be “went ON.” Yagoda writes:

Makes sense, yet “light bulb went off” somehow seemed natural to me. The first use I could find was in the Times in 1971: “Then one day, the light bulb went off over Mrs. Smith’s head.” Google Ngram Viewer suggested that the phrase originated in the late 1960s and has been increasing in popularity since then […] So the expression is relatively new, but is it “mangled”? I don’t think so. To me, light bulb went off isn’t a corruption of light bulb went on (which doesn’t sound quite right in any case), but a variant of a bomb, fireworks, or — most to the point — a photographic flashbulb going “off,” with the drama and suddenness that preposition suggests. I can see why it has caught on.

As is so often the case, I can’t depend on my own intuition; I can’t even tell which I would have preferred if I hadn’t read Yagoda’s piece. So: any thoughts?


  1. I don’t think I would ever say either version. “A bulb lit up over her head,” is probably how I would put it. Went off sounds fine for a flash bulb, but I think that, in general went off has to refer to an instantaneous burst of light/energy in order to sound right.

  2. Stu Clayton says

    It was dark in the room, then a light went on. Or a light bulb, a Bunsen burner, a flashlight, a siren … Then it went off (again).

    A bomb goes off without having gone on.

  3. Cartoon ideas have always been lightbulbs, not flashbulbs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the verbal expression is based on the drawn one. Alas, there is no historical index to cartoon and comic strip tropes.

  4. I agree that “a lightbulb went off” sounds natural and I might have even used it, even though on closer inspection it’s at best a mixed metaphor.

  5. It definitely sounds like a mixed metaphor to me, based on expressions like “the alarm went off”. A lightbulb that went off has surely stopped shining, hasn’t it? Shouldn’t it be “a lightbulb came on”?

  6. It was dark in the room, then a light went on. Or a light bulb, a Bunsen burner, a flashlight, a siren

    I disagree strongly on the last one. I would definitely say that a siren which starts making a noise has “gone off” (or just “gone”) rather than “gone on”.

    An unscientific google shows that most uses of “the siren went on” are either “the siren went on Tuesday” or “the siren went on and on”.

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    As a child c. 1971 I was familiar with the then-current sort of “flashbulb” and I’m guessing I would have been first exposed to the comic-strip convention of lightbulb = idea around the same time. But largely because the former has been so obsolete for so long I no longer think of a camera flash as a specialized genre of “bulb” or “lightbulb” so I can’t say whether the “going off” idiom transfers well from former to latter.

    Note that e.g. an alarm or siren “goes off” rather than “goes on” but someone irked by the noise will respond to the noise by saying “turn that thing off” rather than “on.” I think these are different senses of “off.” Note that sense 2 of the adverb at https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/off contrasts with “on,” but sense 1 doesn’t.

  8. I definitely say “a lightbulb went off” though I think “a lightbulb went on” sounds OK to me as well. I imagine it’s on analogy with other things mentioned above that go off (alarms, sirens, bombs, buzzers, etc).

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    Further complication may be that the idiomatic opposite of “on” for lights may be “out” rather than “off” for many English speakers at least in certain contexts (maybe a leftover from candlelight?), which I guess might tend to leave “off” free for other uses.

  10. Christian Weisgerber says

    You have a circuit / pipe / communications channel, which can be OPEN or CLOSED. In which state can something pass through?

  11. Results from google books advanced:
    “lightbulb went off in my head” 2,040 raw hits.
    “lightbulb went on in my head” 2,090 raw hits.

  12. Y says: Alas, there is no historical index to cartoon and comic strip tropes.

    The chances are, someone has posted about this on the internet already, and here it is:

    Turns out, Felix the Cat cartoons in the 1920s already had the light bulb as a gag.

  13. “lightbulb went off in my head” 2,040 raw hits.
    “lightbulb went on in my head” 2,090 raw hits.

    Nicely balanced!

  14. Reported in today’s Guardian: Giuliani told CNN “the judgment’s out” about whether he and the president respect Mueller, a decorated Vietnam veteran and Republican-appointed former…

    These phrases first become garbled in conversation, like Giuliani’s with CNN, though in that case it’s a judgement call whether the jury’s really still out.

  15. This reminds me slightly of a phone commercial from the 80s in which we see a woman insisting “Yes, Doctor Hodges is in. No, you can’t speak to him at the moment, he’s in. If you call back in half an hour, he should be out by then, and he’ll be able to take your call.” After a bit of back and forth on these lines, the camera pans back to reveal that the doctor’s playing cricket…

  16. If someone told me that an alarm was on, I would assume that they meant it was armed – i.e. it was ready to sound if it detected a fire (or a burglar or whatever). If it was off then it wouldn’t go off.

  17. Speaking of garblage in that Giuliani interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEMETly0QqU), what do Giuliani and the interviewer say at 9:48? He says “Manafort was a brilliant gatherer of _____”, she says “Gatherer of ______”. He seems to be saying something starting with /j/, she seems to be saying it with /dʒ/. I’m sure it’ll be obvious in hindsight, but I’m drawing a complete blank.

  18. @Breffni: It’s amazing, I agree with you that both Giuliani’s word and the interviewer’s repetition of it are extremely difficult to make out. However after a couple of listens, I’m pretty sure it’s “delegates”.

  19. Breffni, I think it might be “delegates”. That’s what it sounds like she’s saying, anyway.

  20. Delegates! Of course. Thanks Keith. He maybe slurs the /d/ a bit, but she says it perfectly clearly (clarifying for the audience?), and yet I could make nothing of it after half a dozen listens.

  21. (N.b.: ro’s comment was in moderation — heaven knows why — when Breffni thanked Keith, otherwise I’m sure the thanks would have been double-barreled. Once again, I apologize for my stupid software.)

  22. 9:22: “We’re gonna do: ostrushn by tweet onna pres-a-nidestates”

    New York. Greatest city in the world.

  23. Indeed, thanks ro, and I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who struggled with it.

  24. David Marjanović says

    So a “fight with” ~ “fight against” situation.

    ro’s comment was in moderation — heaven knows why —

    Maybe starting a comment with “It’s amazing.” looks too much like spam. Or maybe “the former Rudy Giuliani – he used to be Rudy Giuliani, didn’t he?”, as Stephen Colbert called him a few months ago, counts as spam himself now.

  25. I had no trouble with delegates, but of course I live here and I was contaminated by seeing the answer first. But in “ostrushn” I hear the /b/ and /k/ very clearly. Seeing that I expected something much more rapid and slurred, when in fact G says “obstruction by tweet” slowly and clearly by his standards.

  26. Lance Baker says

    None of you seem to realize this is simply a mixed metaphor. An alarm went off / a light bulb went on. Lights going off is darkness. That cannot represent a brilliant idea. Light bulb going on, now THAT represents brilliance, a great idea. Even so, most of you could care less (intentional mistake; should be “couldn’t care less”).

  27. David Marjanović says

    Buuut… “go off” can also mean “explode” or simply “begin”.

  28. PlasticPaddy says

    When an inanimate object goes off, it manifests itself explosively in an observer’s (or narrator’s, if there is no observer) consciousness. I think with the light bulb, the observer is metaphorically dazzled, as from a flash or colpo di fulmine. Luckily, most people who have this experience do not imitate Archimedes and run naked through the streets. For me, lights go out and are off.

  29. I think for an alarm, going off is ambiguous. It normally means it started, but I can imagine someone using it to mean it stopped. If an alarm had been sounding for half an hour and then stopped, I wouldn’t necessarily notice anything odd if someone said “Finally that alarm went off.”

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    In that case I would use “stopped”. The alarms that continue to sound or flash over an extended period are usually those that have to be reset manually and for which no keyholder can reset them sooner. Using a passive construction automatically excuses the key holder for his choice of a device prone to false alarms and for his extended absence, which is OK if you are the key holder.

  31. I think I would say “stopped” also. I was only saying that I think “went off” wouldn’t sound particularly unusual.

  32. Things go on and off, like lights. A light suggests clarity enlightenment, shed some light on this, and so forth. Things go OFF that are “set” or turned on. A light on a timer goes on and off, off being the absence of light and ON being the light now illuminates. Illumination has always suggested that clarity or enlightenment is achieved. Verbs and metaphors become mixed and misused until they become the norm. On becomes Off. LOOSE becomes FIRE.
    Contrary to most movies arrows were not FIRED they were LOOSED, let your arrows loose. After firearms and black powder were invented then FIRE was the command because a fuse or match needed to be ignited so the command is FIRE. Then the guns go OFF. Guns cannon bombs don’t go on they go off, because they are prepared and set in a preparatory condition that has a sequence: LOAD, READY, AIM, FIRE. The result is the gun went off or it misfired.
    OFF has become something that describes a sudden change in status. The light going off while it may sound right IRREGARDLESS, of the actual intent or meaning.
    An idea ???? represented by illumination suggests there is now a light where there was none. Turn on the light so you can see. A light went off is describing a past event “a light went off”, only makes sense when we add “in my head.” The light does not actually exist merely an idea became clear “illuminated” and the brain was working to understand, loaded and aimed, ready, then bang, the light goes OFF. I still think that absence of light should be off and illuminating should be light on.

  33. David M Gold says

    I disagree with some of the prior comments.  The meaning of the expression whether said correctly, “then a light bulb went on” or incorrectly, “then a light bulb went off” is intended to mean the same thing… that a person got a constructive idea. The original, correct, expression correlates to being “enlightened” by having the light go on. 

    People mangle this expression by conflating it with the concept of a bomb going off.  But a bomb going off does not connote the idea of getting a constructive idea but rather it connotes destruction as in “When he made the racist comment it was like a bomb going off in the room”. 

    And with regard to photographic flashbulbs, even if one feels that a “flash” connotes getting a sustainable good idea, one would then say “a flash bulb went off in his head” not “a light went off in his head”.  Have you ever seen a comic strip draw an explosion over a person’s head to imply that the person got an idea?  Never.  

    The bottom line is that saying “a light bulb went off” to imply a person got a constructive idea is mangling the idiom.  

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