Over the weekend, while watching television news, I heard two different people, in unrelated stories, describing realization processes. One said, “Suddenly a light bulb went off in my head.” (At least he didn’t say the light bulb literally went off in his head.) The other said, “All of a sudden, it was like a light bulb went off.”
Am I wrong or, when one has idea—or when something comes to light—the light bulb goes on?
This morning, I set out to research this. What I found upon searching “light bulb went off” were one or two blogs addressing this very subject, and a long list of entries comprising serious text in which the expression is used incorrectly.
There’s no mistaking the imagery. A light goes on, things become clear. One has an idea or, appropriate for the season, epiphany. This makes perfect sense, so why are light bulbs going off in so many heads?
Maybe we can remember it this way: Lights go on and sounds go off.
Sirens go off, alarms go off, firecrackers and explosives go off.
Or maybe it’s not so simple. When my alarm goes off in the morning, doesn’t it really go on?
Either way, if any of us is ever interviewed about a brilliant idea—and if we choose to use the light bulb image—let’s remember how to use it in such a way that our audience still thinks we’re brilliant. And let’s remember that also means not saying “literally.”