December 13, 2019
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Some people in my family say “cut on the light” when they want the light on. This drives the younger generations crazy because, of course, it sounds like the opposite of what is meant. English is a very accommodating language, however, which can privilege use over meaning. In this case, the idea of cutting on or off the lights may come from a time when a knife blade switch provided power. It literally severed the electric current, which might explain the phrase “to cut off the lights,” but not “to cut on.” We would not naturally say “cut on the power,” but rather something like “power up” or another phrase which indicates addition rather than removal. So, the fact that “to cut off” has influenced the use of “to cut on” is interesting. Furthermore, the switches which once literally cut power off have mostly been replaced by circuit breakers and safety switches, remote controls and remote access. Now we can adjust lights without any physical connection, which further obscures any direct link to the old switches and the English grammar surrounding them.
My interest in this specific example comes from the way that it demonstrates the flexibility of the English language. It proves that we can say the opposite of what we mean and still be understood. Also, while English phrases arise from any number of potential sources, we often do use descriptive language, such as this example which alludes to the old knife blade switches. Furthermore, the image of that knife blade switch has generated more meanings and uses.
While to cut on or cut off could be seen as phrasal verbs (verbs attached to another part of speech which creates an idiom) arising from usage, what can we say of “turn off the lights”? Thought it may allude to an action from the past, very few light switches literally turn. However, it is also interesting to think of the way that “to turn on” means “to activate”. To turn off the lights, then, is a form of deactivation rather than a severing of connection. To me, this seems more abstract than the idioms involving to cut.
In fact, most of the way we discuss this function involve a metaphor or idiom, such as: put on the lights; have some light; turn on the lights; hit the lights. Tellingly, all of these phrases have evolved into euphemisms of their own. A turn on is exciting, while a turn off is repellent. Hit the lights does not necessarily mean to hit in the conventional sense of the word, but it does imply a feeling of enthusiasm or ebullience. To shed light gives meaning where it was previously missing. I can only guess at the reasons why “cut the lights” lacks popularity and inference, because, as I said before, English is extraordinarily accommodating.
As a final thought, I wonder what would happen if we ask Alexa to “cut on the lights?” Would an electronic device know what that means?
To leave a comment, click on the title of this post and scroll down.