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Does the phrase "dip your lights" mean to turn them off or something else? Why is the word dip used?


If you drive with your headlights on full beam in fog, the light will just reflect back on you. Dip your lights — it will be much easier to see.

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I guess you do not drive. Cars have a "high" beam that points upwards/level and a "dipped" or low beam that points downwards, dipped downwards. Simple! –  Joe Blow Jun 13 '11 at 21:09
Perhaps it has been mentioned elsewhere in this long thread of comments below, but my grandfather had some old cars in storage, and some of them (in addition to having a hand crank in front to start them) had headlights which had hinges which allowed for manual adjustment. So dipping may have in fact been a term which stems from the physical act of getting out and pointing them down... –  horatio Jun 14 '11 at 16:34

2 Answers 2

Generally, dipping the lights means reducing headlight intensity and turning off the ones that aren't angled toward the ground.

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Thanks! Does the word "dip" imply that, in English, everybody understands that the intensity of headlights is reduced by angling them toward the ground? –  Alex Feb 10 '11 at 10:36
As a forty year old American motorist who learned to drive at age 12, I have NEVER heard this usage. I am wondering if I am an anomaly. –  horatio Feb 10 '11 at 16:06
@horatio: We use dim in America, while the rest of the English-speaking world, especially Britain, happily uses dip :) –  Jimi Oke Feb 10 '11 at 16:52
:) I see "Dip" signs everywhere ( highwaytrafficsupply.com/images/regulatory_signs.html/W15-9.jpg ) and I always wonder how they knew I was coming. –  horatio Feb 10 '11 at 17:08
FWIW I'll chime in as another American driver, driving for 33 years now, and have never heard the term "dip" when referring to headlights, while I've heard "dim" many, many times. Definitely not an American usage. –  Matthew Frederick Jun 14 '11 at 6:44

Just to be clear, for anyone who lives on Mars and does not know about cars, the headlights of cars today usually have two filaments.

One filament projects the beam (off the mirrors behind) straight ahead (roughly level with the road, say), and the other one projects the beam (off the mirrors) downwards (ie dipped, pointing downwards).

Thus -- when the light is on normal (that is to say, "high" beam, because the beam is pointing up high), it hits the road a long way ahead.

But in contrast, when you dip the lights, you will see the light shining on the road a fairly short distance ahead. Because they are dipped or pointing-low - the beam is pointing downwards, rather than onwards and hence in to the eyes of other drivers.

(It is surely impossible that anyone who has driven a car would not understand this -- you can either have the lights pointing a long way ahead, or dip them and you will see the two lights shining in a circle fairly close just ahead of you.)

The thing that you dip the lights with is (understandably) called a "dip switch."

(They used to - before the 60s say - typically be a small footswitch, now they are on a stalk, or automatic.)

Note that "dimming" the lights would not help, you would still dazzle the oncoming driver. You must, of course, point the beam downwards - it's how headlights work.

Note that I mention "bulbs have two filaments.." in the early days of motoring there were different systems to point the headlights downwards, when a car was oncoming..

"'Dipping' (low beam) [ie low, downwards onto the ground] headlamps were introduced in 1915 by the Guide Lamp Company, but the 1917 Cadillac system allowed the light to be dipped with a lever inside the car rather than requiring the driver to stop and get out..." etc etc.

Of course there are much more advanced things today...self levelling, lights that follow with you around a corner, morphing xenons, etc.

In the fog example, yes, naturally you have to point the beams downwards ("dip them") to avoid sparkle in the fog. Just as you have to dip your beams downwards when there is an oncoming car.

Dipping headlights, one of the basic elements of driving, along with brakes, turning indicators, etc.!

It would appear that using the word "dip" for dipping the headlights downwards, is now (always has been?) more British-usage. It seems that in the USA, the word has transformed (?) to "dim," and moreover, people in the USA tend to think of the downwards-dipped beam as the "normal" one, and you then have brights, "high" beam, etc.

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@MT_Head, hello MT, fascinating. How old are you? Do you drive? You are US or UK? (As a computer geek, I know what the coincidental "D.I.P." switch is. Only a handful of humans - electrical engineers, etc. - would know what a "D.I.P." switch is. It is irrelevant here.) I can't think what else you could call the switch that dips the headlights downwards other than a "dip switch". The "headlight switch" is of course the thing that turns the headlights on and off!!! –  Joe Blow Jun 13 '11 at 22:00
@Joe Blow - 41, US, and I've driven for nearly 25 years. DIP switches have been used for persistent settings in small electronics items - mostly things with radios in them, like remote controls and especially for garage doors - since the early 80s at least, and I've known and used the phrase since I was quite small. As for the switch that dips the lights... in every car I've driven, the standard position is dipped, so that's the "high-beam" switch. People who drive with their high beams on all the time, blinding oncoming traffic, are dipsts**. –  MT_Head Jun 13 '11 at 22:09
@Joe... Finally, I would like to encourage you to be a little less scathing of fellow-users in your answers/comments. –  snumpy Jun 13 '11 at 22:09
And here's a fascinating point MT .... based on this whole discussion, I've come to believe that, to some extent, yanks think the low-pointing beam is the 'normal' one ('and you also have brites'), whereas brits think the high-pointing beam is the 'normal' one ('and you can dip it'). Isn't that an astounding language-historical difference?? I love it. Thanks for your info MT. –  Joe Blow Jun 14 '11 at 6:19
@Joe - I think it may be a matter of where one lives. I live now in Los Angeles; I have to drive a very long way out of the city to find an open section of road - it's considered not just rude but slightly reckless to use high beams where they can dazzle oncoming drivers (or shine in the rear-view mirror of the car ahead.) Years ago, however, I lived in a very small town up in the mountains; the highway down to Sacramento was dark, deserted, and twisty, and you'd be a fool not to use your brights. You'd dim them (or dip them!), however, as soon as you saw oncoming traffic. –  MT_Head Jun 14 '11 at 6:43

protected by RegDwigнt Jan 24 '13 at 9:48

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