what does it mean, the shooting with/of the lights out?
March 23, 2008 8:30 AM   Subscribe

what's the origin / meaning of the phrase "he's shooting [playing?] lights out"?

searching this on the internet(s) is, well, problematic, as i seem to encounter thousands of uses of this phrase, but can't seem to find an origin story.

i assume it could mean, "she's shooting so well the lights could be off and she'd still be making the shots." or perhaps "she's shooting so well it's like she's knocking out individual light-bulbs."

i am strangely curious as to the origins of this phrase. thanks.
posted by garfy3 to Writing & Language (19 answers total)
A few of the Google cites for this phrase have it "shooting lights-out" which would imply your first suggestion: "hitting his shots even in the dark".
posted by nicwolff at 8:53 AM on March 23, 2008

If you're talking about "Shoot out the lights," I've always taken the phrase to mean that something has come to an absolute end or has been pushed as far as it can go.

In country songs, like "Jose Cuervo (You Are A Friend Of Mine)" by Shelly West, the singer uses the phrase to describe how she'll be drinking and partying, "shooting out the lights" all night long. But when Richard Thompson uses the phrase in "Shoot Out The Lights," the implied meaning is much darker, though probably just as final.
In the darkness the game is real
Real as a gun. Real as a gun
As he watches the lights of the city
And he moves through the night
Shoot out the lights.
And finally, I used to have a friend who gave a very obvious sign when he'd had too much to drink and was about to pass out where he sat. Without fail, he'd put both hands out, thumbs-back and fingers-pointed like a pair of imaginary six-guns. Then he'd pretend to blast away at the ceiling lights, making "pyew pyew" sounds.

Maybe this helps?
posted by grabbingsand at 9:03 AM on March 23, 2008

I don't have a citation, so this could be complete guessery on my part, but I always thought that this was from boxing. An example being, "This boxing match between Mike Tyson and popechunk won't even be a contest, it'll be lights out for Tyson." Meaning that these two fighters were so unevenly matched that popechunk was clearly just going to knock Mike Tyson's lights out at the first bell.

So when you hear a sportscaster say that Roger Clemons is "lights out", it means, "totally overmatches hitters". In other words, something is a dead certainty.
posted by popechunk at 9:46 AM on March 23, 2008

I think popechunk is right, but this is a job for languagehat!
posted by lukemeister at 9:56 AM on March 23, 2008

I think the relevant connotation for "lights out" here is "end of the day", "end of the show", or "it's all over." (The last of which, figurative, comes from the previous quite literal ones). Playing lights out just means playing so effectively that you're essentially shutting down the game and declaring it over.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:59 AM on March 23, 2008

Don Meredith used to sing "Turn out the lights, the party's over" on Monday Night Football when the winner was clear.
posted by lukemeister at 10:07 AM on March 23, 2008

I'm inclined to agree with Wolfdog, and the implied 'might as well turn off the (flood)lights and go home, it's over'.

The RT lyrics are the flipside to 'I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight', and I think they come from a very different figurative place.
posted by holgate at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2008

I've never heard it before, but from a quick Google to get the context, it sounds to me like someone is shooting very accurately without having to look -- reflexively, bangbangbang, how do you like your blue-eyed boy? -- something like a Zen archer. He's shooting as if his eyes (lights) were closed or his mind were somewhere else or as if the lights were out or as if he were quite accurately shooting out the lights. It seems ambiguous enough (without the definite article) to draw meaning from all of them.

However, some writers use the definite article here ('shooting the lights out' and not shooting the opponent's lights out), which then sounds like the writer, at least, thinks it means shooting at the actual lighting fixtures, which is a weakened cowboy-movie strain of the phrase.
posted by pracowity at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2008

pracowity: thanks for excellently articulating the ambiguity in usage that led to my question!

i suppose the intended meaning (initially) could be resolved if we could find some early uses in sports publications somewhere. lacking the lexis-nexis right now, not sure how to best go about that...
posted by garfy3 at 10:17 AM on March 23, 2008

Perhaps from the ending of "The Natural" (1984): "Hobbs hits a towering fly ball, a pennant-winning home run, which soars into the stadium's lights and starts a chain reaction that bursts the lights and rains sparks down over the field, backed by Randy Newman's iconic score."
posted by iviken at 10:43 AM on March 23, 2008

I'm with Wolfdog, in terms of how I have always understood this phrase. He's shooting so well that opponents are stopped completely - turn out the lights because the show's over. (Shades of the boxing usage, but that's not the core sense I have from the phrase.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:46 AM on March 23, 2008

That is, as I understand it it does not have anything to do with shooting at lightbulbs.
He's doing an activity in a lights-out way; he could as easily be debating lights-out, surfing lights-out, pitching lights-out, driving lights-out (assuming these activities in their competitive sense).
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:49 AM on March 23, 2008

'Lights' is also an archaic word for lungs. The OED's first citation is from 1200. It states "The word LUNG has the same etymylogical meaning, the lungs being distinguished from the other internal parts by their lightness."
posted by lukemeister at 11:23 AM on March 23, 2008

I'd always thought it referred to (as in @grabbingsand's comment) no-holds-barred revelry and hard partying. Am loving these other etymologies, though!
posted by AngerBoy at 11:27 AM on March 23, 2008

Shooting lights out (note the lack of "the" here), I believe would refer to basketball primarily. If you search for "shooting lights out" you'll find mostly results relating to basketball, as you may have found, but some of the answers aren't aware of this. It means making a high percentage of your shots. It would primarily refer to mid-long distance shots, not layups, and especially to three point shots. I don't know the origin. Could be that "the player is shooting so well, they could hit shots even in the dark", as some have suggested, or as others have said, maybe it's "no need to even play anymore, just turn the lights out". Out of those two, I would make an educated guess that it's the former, because as you'll see from a search, this phrase mostly refers to only one player. Someone would have to be doing really extraordinarily well for the latter to make sense, simply on account of that one player. One player can make a big difference, but rarely big enough for one team to pull far ahead of the other. Of course, it could have entirely different origins.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 12:07 PM on March 23, 2008

It occurs in other contexts, though - a baseball pitcher can be pitching lights-out for example.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:17 PM on March 23, 2008

I also have always taken this the Wolfdog-way. In baseball, at least, when a pitcher is lights-out (or throwing lights-out) I've always taken that as "might as well close up and go home; it's hopeless/over."

I think it's reinforced since it's used most often for a closer in baseball (the last pitcher of the night if things go well). They're also said to "slam the door" in finishing a game, which I think is from the same family of metaphor.
posted by rokusan at 3:19 PM on March 23, 2008

This wikipedia list of baseball slang supports Wolfdog's take on it more than mine.

Though I would still knock the stuffin' out of that Tyson fella
posted by popechunk at 7:17 PM on March 23, 2008

In baseball, teams typically have a relief pitcher whose specialty is closing out the game. They bring him in in the last inning when they have a lead, and he blows unhittable fireballs past the other team to win the game. (Though he's seldom good for more than one inning.)

Many closers are so good that the game is essentially over as soon as they take the mound. Commentators typically refer to such a closer as "lights-out". As in, "The Mets really need a run here in the eighth, because the Yankees have Rivera warming up for the ninth and he is just lights-out".

And on preview, yeah what everyone else said. I associate it primarily with baseball. I always took it to mean, turn the lights out and go home cause the game is pretty much over.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:51 PM on March 23, 2008

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