The idiomatic relationship between out like a light and falling asleep (or being rendered comatose) quickly is easily understood in the context of electric lights extinguished instantly by a switch. The logic would also seem to apply to the blowing out of a candle, the turning down of the wick of an oil lamp, or the closing of a gas jet.

But when and where did the application of the phrase to mean this first take shape?

In searching via ngram, 19th century usage shows up, but most of those references that refer to dimming or extinguishing seem to be focused on fleeting emotions and facial expressions rather than consciousness. Numerous mid 20th century references (at least as early as the 30s) use the phrase in the modern sense.

Does anyone have information as to when and where out like a like started to mean rapid unconsciousness?

2 Answers 2


Shakespeare, King Lear...

My great affliction,
If I could bear longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out.

...where The Oxford Shakespeare has the footnote...

My snuff the last flickerings of life in me. Literally, the smouldering wick of a candle; the expression to go out like a candle in a snuff was proverbial

In the realm of figurative language, life and consciousness are easily conflated concepts, as are candles and lights (wick, gas, electric, whatever). The basic metaphor has been around a long time.

Under OED's out like a light having lost consciousness, having fainted, or gone to sleep, at once. their first citation is...

1934 R. Chandler, Black Mask - Something swished and I went out like a light.

...so if you find an earlier usage, I'm sure they'd like to know about it.

  • Also, Shakespeare seems to like the snuffed candle image. In Hamlet, Claudius says There lives within the very flame of love A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it.
    – bib
    Mar 25, 2014 at 14:29

The use of out like a light is shown in 1866 in the Victorian periodical All the Year Round, published by Charles Dickens, dated May 26, 1866. This precedes the invention of the incandescent light bulb, which only introduced commercially around 1878.

In that periodical, the writer says:

The pretty flush that had been on her face went out like a light that is extinguished, the colour died away from her lips, her features became set and white...

An The Southern Literary Messenger, a periodical of Richmond, Virginia, published another similar use in May 1863:

Sometimes there was a proud, tender light in his eyes, and again, they were stern and cold, [n her own chamber, Cornelia sat ... After long watching, life had not worn away, it had gone out like a light which is extinguished by some unseen, ...

In the first case, it's clearly a reference to someone's demeanor suddenly changing, where the subject became withdrawn and no longer interactive with her guests. (You can get this by reading the fuller test.) The second, earlier usage, shows a similar usage, where someones character suddenly changes.

These both attest that out like a light was a familiar metaphor far before the introduction of the electric light.

Further research shows *out like a light is used even earlier (e.g., 1812, in the reporting of someone's death).

It might be more helpful to show how out came to mean unconscious. Etymology online suggests this is attested from 1898, in the sport of boxing.

So the phrase out, like a light make be the fusion of out from boxing in or around 1898 with the much older metaphor out like a light, and it eventually came to be written without the comma.

  • While this gives interesting background, it doesn't really address the OP's question, which is specifically about the use of that phrase to mean loss of consciousness. Mar 25, 2014 at 2:25
  • See my edit. I think that covers it. Mar 25, 2014 at 2:46
  • OED's first citation for out = unconscious is 1894 (Daily News 20 Dec. 3/7) The referee stopped the fight at the close of the first round...Smith being heavily punished and all but out. Mar 25, 2014 at 18:13

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