Say it.

Say “open” or “close the light” and watch the grammar police haul you away to a place without doors.

Why is there an aversion to this phrase?

Because many, including Urban Dictionary, believe that it’s used only when “someone is just not thinking.” They say that we can switch lights off by flicking the toggle or turn them off by dialing the rotary, but we do not open or close something to have or lose illumination. We can even kill the lights, according to Britney Spears, but we can never close or open them.

Close or open the light is a metaphrase: a literal, word-for-word translation of our “pakisara ang ilaw” or “pakibuksan ang ilaw.” (Did this Cebuana get that Filipino translation right? We Cebuanos would say “ablihi ang suga” or “patya ang suga.”).

The metaphrase falls outside standard English, but fits comfortably with Filipino English as well as with—get this—other English variants.

Here’s what I found:

  • Open the Light is the title of a music track of Boards of Canada (though I doubt the light refers to anything electrical). The Wikipedia entries on Canadian English and Quebec English say the phrase is a Quebecois regionalism, which uses translated French words such as, according to another forum, ouvre la lumiere—literally, “open the light” or fermer les lumieres for “close the lights.” It seems, however, that standard French would use the word “extinguish,” thus allumer la lumière or éteindre la lumière. (Whew, I’m just copying the Quebecois-French phrases; I don’t write or speak French!)
  • Two other forums discussed that the phrase may also be a word-for-word translation of phrases in the Croation, New Zealand, Italian and Chinese languages. One particularly interesting argument in favor of the phrase is that we can literally open or close the flow of electrical current or open or close the circuit to allow the current to flow (electrical schematics).


Should we say “open the light”? What do you think?

Photo credit: Biomassa BR


13 thoughts on “Open the light

  1. Oh, that’s interesting! I didn’t know that. How funny if we end up saying, “Close the circuit.” Or perhaps we can–in our best imitation of Patrick Stewart’s Capt. Jean Luc Picard voice–“Let the current flow. Make it so!” :)

  2. @Mr. Briggs: I seem to remember saying many years ago in science class, “Funny thing, we say ‘close the light,’ but you have to open the circuit, so it’s opposite,” and the other kids said, nobody says ‘close the light.’ I’m sure that my father, and probably also my mother, used the expression. I grew up in the Bronx in an Italian-American family. Probably the science class episode occurred after we moved to Westchester.

  3. Am I hearing or reading this correctly?
    Are you telling me you have never known what is meant by the phrase?
    “Open the light” and “Close the light”
    It comes from the Electronics and Electrical Engineers laws and concepts of circuitry!
    When we have an “Open curcuit” it means that no electricity can flow through and complete the curcuit therefore the electrical component is
    When the curcuit is “Closed” the electricity flows through the curcuit allowing the curcuit to perform.
    The performance is that “Close the light” means to turn it “on”.

    Many Europeans use these phrases and in some cases you will find these in directions or on switches!
    I am,
    Steve Lnrd

    • Hi, Steve! Yes, I must admit that I never really thought about how these quite common phrases came about, though we Filipinos use them in everyday speech and know what they mean. English is more complicated than the two other Filipino languages I know; hence, this blog. I was told that to switch on the light, we actually open the circuit; to switch it off, we close the circuit.

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