From darkness into the light: metaphors of darkness and light

Saranyu Unthiamson/EyeEm/Getty Images

by Liz Walter

‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.’

‘In the midst of darkness, light persists.’

These quotes, from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, perfectly demonstrate the way darkness and light are used as metaphors in English (and many other languages), with darkness suggesting ignorance, evil and unhappiness and light signifying knowledge, purity and happiness. There are many common phrases that exemplify this, and this post will look at some of the most common ones.

We’ll start with ignorance and knowledge. If you keep something dark, you keep it secret, and if you are in the dark about something, you don’t know anything about it:

They were planning to leave, but they kept it dark.

We were completely in the dark about what was happening.

Conversely, if you bring something to light or if something comes to light, people find out about it, while if you cast/shed/throw light on something, you give people information about it:

New facts were brought to light by scholars.

This evidence did not come to light until after the trial.

Are you able to shed any light on this subject?

Now we turn to metaphors of evil and goodness or purity. We use the word dark to talk about bad actions or characteristics. Other adjectives connected with darkness, for example shady, shadowy and murky are also used to denote dishonesty:

There’s a dark side to her character.

They’re involved in various murky business deals.

On the other hand, we use terms such as a shining light or a beacon/ray of light to describe people or things that are good or give hope, especially in a generally bad environment. Similarly, we talk about someone or something being a shining example of something good:

He was a beacon of light in an evil world.

The factory was a shining example of good working practice.

I will finish with metaphors of unhappiness and happiness. If we are in a dark place, we are unhappy or having difficult problems. Someone who is in a dark mood is unhappy or angry. We also talk about a dark time or dark period, and if we make dark predictions, we are pessimistic about the future:

I lost my job and my friends and found myself in a very dark place indeed.

He was in a particularly dark mood that day.

This was one of the darkest periods in European history.

Someone who is the light of your life is the person you love most and who makes you feel happy, and if you say there is light at the end of the tunnel, you mean that although things are difficult now, you believe that they will soon get better:

Laura really is the light of my life.

We’ve been struggling to build up the business, but at last we can see light at the end of the tunnel.

I hope you will find these phrases useful. Do you have similar darkness and light metaphors in your language?

19 thoughts on “From darkness into the light: metaphors of darkness and light

  1. Marcel Beleyn

    In Dutch someone who is a bit thick, not very intelligent, is also said not to be ‘ een groot licht’, i.e. ‘a big light’.

  2. Marco

    Maybe you forgot to talk about the “dark side”. We all have a dark side (and unknown) within us, and it makes us more complex.
    Even so, as always it was a great article.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this.
    It increased my knowledge of Idioms and phrases in a very intresting way.
    Hope you will some more blogs on others idioms too.
    Thanks again.

    1. Liz Walter

      Dev, do have a look at my other blogs and those of my colleague Kate Woodford (click on our names). You’ll find lots of blogs on idioms.

      1. Khalid Anis

        Respectable Liz Walter,
        Good Morning,
        I will first of say thank you for writing so good post about metaphor ” From Darkness Into The Light”.
        You have very nicely used these metaphors in sentences to explain there usage and there meanings.
        Thanking you.
        Yours sincerely
        Khalid Anis.

  4. jean -jacques Ruinga

    i liz!i’m very pleased about these metaphors of light and darkness; i can even say that you shed light on my knowledge! Many thanks

  5. Maryem Salama

    In my language, we are used to saying ” the light of the house” to describe the most beloved member of the family. It is usually one of the parents, or one of the biggest siblings, or anyone else whose presence or absence makes difference.

  6. Rosen

    Very interesting and impressive! I remember the words on the Shakespeare monument: “I say there is no darkness but ignorance.”

  7. Ha

    I just have a question with the title “From darkness into the light”. It’s “darkness” but “the light”, why is it so? The use of articles still seems tricky to me. Thank you in advance.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, I agree that’s a tricky one to explain. It wouldn’t be wrong to say ‘from darkness to light’ or ‘from the darkness to the light. But it’s quite a fixed phrase and this is the way it’s usually said.

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