Have you ever given any thought to where the phrases “knock the daylights out of” or “scared the daylights out of’ come from?
Many English speaking people use the phrase, “knock the daylights out of”, as in “He had the daylights knocked out of him.” Similarly, there is the phrase, “beat the daylights out of” and “scared the daylights out of”. Where did the phrase come from and what does it really mean?
In the early 1700s, the word ‘daylights’ didn’t mean the light of day. It wouldn’t make much sense if it did since each day has a single ‘light’, the sun, so the word wouldn’t be pluralized if that was the meaning.
By the original meaning, ‘daylights’ was a reference to a person’s eyes. More properly, it refers to a person’s eyes when they are wide open. If their eyes are closed, they are figuratively in darkness because they won’t be able to see anything, including the light of day.
Although we don’t often use ‘daylight’ in this way anymore, we still allude to this use. For instance, “I wish they’d open their eyes and see what’s going on”.
Even though it is about 300 years after the origin of the phrases, they still have more meaning if we know that the reference has to do with a person’s eyes. If you were to knock the daylights out of someone, you’d render them unconscious, so they’d no longer be able to see.
Likewise, if you had the daylights knocked out of you, it would indicate that someone knocked you unconscious. If you say, “You scared the daylights out of me”, you are saying that you were scared so badly that you closed your eyes. Knowing this, if your eyes are open very wide in fright, you haven’t had the daylights scared out of you.
This is at least close to the current meaning, unlike quite a few phrases that differ from their original meaning. The phrase is a reference to your eyes and whether they are open or closed.
Now you know what you are really saying when you use the term. You also know what the actual meaning is and how it came about.