The figure of the legislator is a puzzle. Like the tutor in Emile, the legislator has the role of manipulating the desires of his charges, giving them the illusion of free choice without its substance.Little wonder then that many critics have seen these characters in a somewhat sinister light. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rousseau/

My opinion is that “see someone or something in a sinister light” is not equal to “to consider it as being a sinister thing”, but means that to apprehend something unfriendly. And usually, when we read this phrase, we will expect some words about the light in which it is seen. Is my explanation correct?

Assuming it is right, suppose I want to say the opposite thing, can I say something like : many interpreters have seen these characters in a sympathetic light? What is the right expression when it comes to use light to express a sympathetic or friendly interpretation of people’s words or character?


3 Answers 3


That's an abuse of a common expression as an idiom.

The original comes from given type of light exposing or hiding certain features. It can be a flattering light, or unflattering light - light that makes the subject look better or worse. Wear an expensive amethyst collar and show up in light of inexpensive incandescent bulbs. The amethysts look like cheap bottle glass, your skin looks ashen and the shadows under your eyes seem deeper: it's a very unflattering light.

By extension - metaphor/idiom, given light may expose/enhance given features, so "viewing in sinister light" means noticing sinister features of character, have a bias towards noticing negative - evil - sinister qualities. It doesn't outright mean a judgment, but it implies a certain focus, suspicion. Innocent and positive acts may go overlooked, while negative, questionable, risque themes are emphasized.

If you want the opposite, it will be a positive, friendly, kind light. If you want to be sarcastic, claiming the light is overly kind, you can say about looking at them through rose-tinted glasses.

  • Do you mean that "in a sinister light" is an idiom and my conjuring up "in a sympathetic light" an abuse, or that "in a sinister light" is an abuse of some other idiom?
    – benlogos
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 15:03
  • No, "in flattering light" is a common expression, and "in sinister light" abuses that expression making it into an idiom. There are no lamps that shine sinisterly.
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 15:11

There are two factors involved in both the original literal expression and various metaphorical usages (see X in a Y light).

-2. The lighting conditions / plainly observable features obtaining.

-1. The observing by the audience / appraisal by those making a judgement

As an example of where the light (rather than any critical bias of any audience) is heavily emphasised (by not mentioning any judges) (ie an objective emphasis):

NY Times

But during his lifetime, one popular work cast [Beethoven] in a different light not particularly to his liking.

And, as we shall see, the metaphor has been broadened into 'see X in a Y' light' where Y' need no longer correspond to the original quality of light (flattering / unflattering) but to the interpretation encouraged (sinister etc).

And one that emphasises predisposition of the appraisers (ie a subjective emphasis):

The Two Faces of Ronald Reagan

Liberals are being soft-soaped into accepting or at least tolerating Reagan, but opponents of big government see him in a different light.

My opinion is that “see someone or something in a sinister light” is here likely to be equal to “to consider it as being a sinister thing” - I'm assuming no prejudice (on average) amongst the 'critics' mentioned.

  • You have not one hundred percent convinced me with regard to your last opinion, maybe 51% percent already. I think that a critic, say, who questions the legitimacy of the legislator, might be counted as seeing the legislator in sinister light.
    – benlogos
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 16:14
  • Oh, I'm sure that we're all influenced by previous experiences – often in ways we're not conscious of. That's why Justice has to wear a blindfold ("HIM again!"). Prejudices (sadly) / experience, and newly discovered facets (thankfully), both sway a person's judgement. The colour of the light is influenced by both the facet it's reflecting off (objective influence), and the colour of the goggles / spectacles one's wearing (subjective influence). Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 16:36
  • This is a great answer. I am satisfied if you mean that our opinions or conclusions about things, all of them, are inevitably affected by our biases. With this logic, the property you attribute to things is the same as that of your prospective throught which you see them, or if not the same, they must be so similiar that you can hardly differentiate them. The sinisterness of your light must pollute your understanding of the object in the light so much that the sinisterness of the light is transferred into the object.
    – benlogos
    Commented Oct 26, 2013 at 13:32

“In a sinister light” means to portray someone or something in a negative manner.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.