Q From Craig Brown: My question concerns the living daylights. In the U.S. it is used in a very limited sense, usually as in ‘to scare the living daylights out of’, but also sometimes in the sense of a beating. Where did this originate?
A The word daylights was used in the eighteenth century to mean one’s eyes. The first example on record is from 1752, in Amelia by Henry Fielding: “If the lady says such another word to me ... I will darken her daylights.” It extended its meaning through the following half century to mean any vital part of the body, not just the eyes.
So a sentence like “they had the daylights beaten out of them” would be taken more or less literally to mean that the persons concerned suffered severe injury. There are many examples in the nineteenth century of expressions like “knock the daylights out of him” or “scare the daylights out of him”. The word is still common today in several fixed phrases, though it’s usually used figuratively. One example chosen at random: “The Bulldogs beat the daylights out of Rice 52-21 in a Western Athletic Conference game” appeared in the Fresno Bee in November 2004. However, hardly anyone now knows what one’s daylights actually are.
In the later nineteenth century, the original term was expanded to living daylights. Perhaps daylights by then had become less clear in meaning, so that an extra word had to be added to restore its full force. It was unnecessary repetition, since one’s daylights were always alive, but logic has never been a powerful influence on the creators of words and phrases. The earliest example I’ve come across is from a newspaper dated 1891: “‘Jehosaphat!’ said the sportsman. ‘I’m not going to be insulted by a miserable rabbit,’ and he started to club the living daylights out of the beast with his gun.”
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