I was wondering if it would be period accurate if depicting someone like a soldier during World War I or II to say "light them up" to shoot the enemy and at what time the term came into use.

3 Answers 3


The first citation in print with the meaning "to shoot, destroy with gunfire" is from 1967, in Puerto Rican writer Piri Thomas's Down These Mean Streets:

You’d smack him down like Whiplash does in the cowboy flick or really light him up like Scarface in that gangster picture — swoon, crack, bang, bang, bang, short-nose, snub-nose pistol, and a machine gun, and a poor fuckin’ loudmouth is laid out.

This is given in both Green's Dictionary of Slang (light up v.1 sense 2c) and the Oxford English Dictionary (light verb 2, under "to light up", sense 7). It was probably used orally before then, but there is no earlier record. This suggests it wasn't widely used in the 1940s let alone the 1910s, but isn't conclusive evidence.

  • 1
    It might be related to the use of tracer rounds. I don't know if those were used more frequently in the Vietnam era, but I do remember crawling under the lighted lines they created.
    – Jim Mack
    Mar 21 at 18:45

J.E. Lighter, The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) has the following relevant entries for "light up":

light up v. ... 2.a. to fire a gun. 1953–55 Fine Delinquents 93: I stole my first Pistol....I told the other three to move away from me because I was going to light up. b. Esp. Mil[itary usage] to kill or destroy by gunfire, shoot at; bombard; riddle with bullets. [References—from as early as Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets (1966–1967), cited in Stuart F's answer—omitted.]

Lighter's citation in definition 2(a) of the entry is to Benjamin Fine, 1,000,000 Delinquents (1955), which reads in context as follows:

I was now twelve years old and didn't care about any body so I stole my first Pistol. and got three of the tots and went to the corner of -----. Nobody suspect four kids to do anything so we had the advantage. I told the other three to move away from me because I was going to light up then I lit guys ran everywhere and I ran two because I was empty.

The quoted text is not visible in the snippet window of the book cited above, but it appears in a reprint of the account that appeared in Swing: Writings by Children (1960).

It thus appears that light up in the sense of killing enemies with firearms or bombs originated with the idea of simply firing a gun. I imagine that the visible flame from the muzzle of a gun (at night) when the weapon is fired led to the suggestion of "lighting up."

Lighter notes that "light up" was also used from the mid-1950s in the sense of "start an engine"; the earliest instance of this sense of the term in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang comes from Heflin, USAF Air Force Dictionary (1956), which it gives as "Light,... To start a jet engine. Slang." A quick search of Google Books, however, finds examples of "light up" in this sense from at least 1950. From "High Altitude Starting," in Naval Aviation News (April 1950):

One of the problems off getting a jet engine to light up at altitude, once it has stopped, is to get the gasoline spray fine enough for ignition to take place.

An even older sense of "light up" (more commonly framed in past tense) is "to become drunk." Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) has this entry for the term:

lit up or lit up like a Christmas tree 1 adj phr by 1902 Drunk: I found Uncle Peter and he was also lit up—H McHugh 2 adj phr 1960s narcotics intoxicated with narcotics; =HIGH

The reference here is to Hugh McHugh, You Can Search Me (1905), where the quotation runs in full as follows:

The house was lighted up from cellar to attic. As soon as I opened the door I found our respected mayor, Uncle Peter, and he was also lit up.

Here the sense of the expression is (metaphorically) "shining brightly," although the full expression "lit [someone or something] up like a Christmas tree" has sometimes also been used (in recent decades) to describe riddling someone with bullets or heavily bombarding a target location, as in this example from Doris Hall, Oh Wretched Sinner: Oh Wretched Child (2011):

... I was getting a little bit tired of it, them chasing me every time I went outside, boy they had better be glad, I did not have a gun on me, I would have lit them up like a Christmas Tree, I would have put so many in them, that you could not see anything but light through them the holes where I put in them, you could see all the colors from the lights, i was just getting tired of them ...

I would not, however, advise using "light up" to mean "shoot" in dialogue between characters in a scene set in World War I or World War II.


Light them up doesn't strictly mean shooting. In prison and street lingo it just means to promptly attack someone without suffering any substantial resistance on immediately upon encountering them. For example "Mike saw John Trying to talk go becky" "he lit him up?" "Handled it"

  • I'll bet this was derived from the military use.
    – Barmar
    Mar 21 at 20:11

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