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It's best to keep your daylights in your head

What scares the living daylights out of you?

Maybe it's watching a scary movie in the dark by yourself. Maybe it's that dog down the street who makes Cujo look like Lassie.

Or maybe it's the thought of Stranger Things not coming back for a third season. (Relax, it totally is.)

Have you ever wondered though, what exactly is a "living daylight"? The answer is kind of violent.

Around the mid-18th century, "daylights" started to mean "eyes." If you scared the daylights out of someone, you scared the eyes right out of their head:

In 1752, we start to see the expression "to darken someone's daylights," which meant to give someone a black eye.

By the early 19th century, there are all sorts of verbs to express violent intentions. You could dash someone's daylights out, knock their daylights out, beat them out, etc.

But why was "living" added to this phrase? Unfortunately, we don't really know the answer to this one.

Michael Quinion of World Wide Words theorizes that we start to see "living daylights" in the 19th century, because people probably didn't know what daylights were anymore. Quinion thinks that "living" was added as a way to restore meaning to the phrase, to make it clear it meant to scare or knock the life out of someone.  

Professor Anne Curzan checked the Corpus of Contemporary American English to see if there's anything we do with daylights that don't somehow involve violence. The answer, she says, seems to be no. 

"Scaring is the least violent thing. Other than that, it's to beat, to knock, to kick, to pound," Curzan said.

Have you ever heard "daylights" used without some kind of violence tied in? Let us know at acurzan@umich.edu or rkruth@umich.edu.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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