I’m having ‘lightbulb moments’ about ‘epiphanies’

English has made a connection between light and insight – think "enlightenment" since its beginnings as a language.


Why do we sometimes describe having a great idea or a sudden realization as “a lightbulb moment”? Is it a nod to Thomas Edison? When you have a flash of insight, is it as if you’re as brilliant as the genius inventor, who popularized the incandescent lightbulb and patented over 1,000 inventions? Or is it a new twist on the ancient and widespread use of light as a metaphor for inspiration and sudden understanding? 

Lightbulb moment appeared first as a visual gag in cartoons. Internet lore attributes it to Felix the Cat, a cheeky feline star of the silent-film era, whose thoughts were often represented as pictograms above his head. The first undisputed example is actually from a 1935 “Betty Boop” cartoon, when Miss Boop’s grandfather was drawn wearing a hat with a bulb that would light up when he had an idea. Given that Edison was strongly identified with his creation, it is possible that Grandpa Boop’s hat flashed to indicate he was having similarly brilliant ideas. It seems much more likely, though, that it was an old metaphor refigured in a new technology. In any case, the term lightbulb moment didn’t find its way into English until 1974, when Dick Cavett described getting an idea: “It did strike me one day, like the light-bulb moment in a comic strip.”   

English has made the connection between light and insight since it was a language. It inherited light and enlight (enlighten, in Middle English) from Germanic, for example, and both have been used figuratively to mean “to inspire” or “to achieve greater understanding” for nearly 2,000 years. There are many similar examples – to dawn on, a bright idea, and so on. 

One, though, is particularly salient at this time of year: Epiphany. This holiday, celebrated on Jan. 6, marks “the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles,” as Merriam-Webster explains. The three wise men literally “see the light” – they follow a star as it leads them to the infant Jesus, the “light of the world.”

The word epiphany contains “light,” too – it comes, via Greek, from the Proto-Indo-European root -bha, “to shine.” From the 14th century, it referred to “a manifestation or appearance of some divine or superhuman being,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, like the Christ child before the Magi. Irish author James Joyce popularized a secular use of the term. When you have an epiphany, it’s “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something ... an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure” (Merriam-Webster). An epiphany, then, might be seen as a deeper, more spiritual version of the lightbulb moment.

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