What does it mean when someone says they need you to ‘shed some light on’ a topic? Where does this phrase come from?
‘Shed some light on’ is an idiom that is commonly used in everyday speech. When someone says they’re going to ‘shed some light on’ something, it means that they’re going to make it clear, provide an explanation, or offer information that helps to create further understanding.
The idiom ‘shed some light on’ is used to explain the process of providing further information on a particular subject or expanding one’s understanding of something. This is a commonly used phrase in everyday speech in order to indicate that further investigation or clarification is needed or about to be presented on a topic.
When you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. If you were in the dark and trying to read a book, for example, it would be very difficult to see the words on the pages. If you turned on a lamp– therefore ‘shedding some light on’ the book– it would be much easier to see and read the book.
If a person says that they are going to ‘shed some light’ on a topic, it means that they are going to share information about that topic to make it more clear. Another way to explain its meaning would be to use the phrases “to illuminate,” “to clear up,” “to sort out,” “to straighten out,” or “to make understood.”
You might use this phrase if there is a subject that you are trying to understand but are struggling with it. If you are with someone that is more knowledgeable than you on the topic, you might say, “can you ‘shed some light on’ this for me?”
Similarly, if someone was going to explain something complex to you, they might say, “let me ‘shed some light on’ this for you.”
It isn’t entirely known when the phrase ‘shed some light on’ first appeared, but it is known that it predates the invention of electricity. Back when people used to use candles and other non-electric means of creating light, the act of lighting a candle to illuminate spaces in their home became known as ‘shedding light.’
According to one source, the use of the verb ‘shed’ in reference to light dates back to around the year 1200. Another source states that the use of the phrase ‘shed light on’ emerged in the fourteenth century in the literal sense of illuminating something by ‘shedding some light on’ it. By the fifteenth century, the word “light” started being used figuratively in order to mean “understanding.”
The phrase can be found in George J. Adler’s translation of Fauriel’s History of Provencal Poetry from 1860 in the following line:
“On these antecedents that I shall first endeavor to shed some light.”
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the phrase ‘shed light on’ is more commonly used than ‘shed some light on,’ but both of them have relatively similar trajectories on the graph of usage since 1800.
‘Shed light on’ appears to become more commonly used around 1830 and started to increase noticeably in the first half of the 20th century. ‘Shed some light on’ similarly increased in usage in the early 1900s but isn’t quite as common as the shorter version of the phrase.
How would you use the idiom ‘shed some light on’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples.
What are other words and phrases that convey a similar message as ‘shed some light on’? Here are some synonymous terms you might consider using instead:
We hope that this article helped to ‘shed some light on’ the meaning of this common phrase! If you’re ready to learn more idiomatic expressions in English, make sure you check out our idioms blog.