Notes From Babel

Ambiguous Phrases: “More Heat than Light”

with 2 comments

At the risk of sounding daft, it seems to me that the expression “more light than heat” could mean just the very opposite of what you might intend.   The common understanding is that “If a discussion generates more heat than light, it doesn’t provide answers, but does make people angry.”  But depending on what image the viewer happens to draw up—and I’ve not been able to uncover any actual origin for the saying—the expression could mean something different from, or even the opposite of, what the declarant means.  For example, one expects a home furnace or a stove to generate heat, not light.  One builds a campfire to produce both.

Thus, it seems unfounded to suggest universal acceptance of the proposition that heat is evil and at all times to be avoided.  Yet, that appears to be the implied premise necessary to make “more heat than light” meaningful.

To make one’s meaning clearer, why not say that something creates “more illumination than agitation” or “more enlightenment than excitement”?  It makes the declarant’s intent more readily apparent and  requires fewer processing cycles of the reader’s CPU.


Written by Tim Kowal

August 8, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Language

2 Responses

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  1. I disagree with you that phrase can (easily) mean the opposite. It references the context of discussion and debate obviously – light being needed for understanding i.e darkness prompts irrationality, and heat being the hotness of emotion which clouds rationality.

    However, the origin of the phrase is perhaps an inversion in Hamlet, in reference to a heart on fire “giving more light than heat” in which Shakespeare seems to mean the opposite of what one might normally think – so, not that an emotional heart ‘on fire’ clouds judgement, but that it produces lightness of substance rather than the heat of true love – Polonius is referring to Hamlet lying to Ophelia in order to court her. So it you did want to invert its meaning to allude to lightness vs the heat of substance, then you could, but perhaps best by inverting the actual sentence like Shakespeare has done. Though most would still interpret it in its common sense however in regards to the results of discussion and debate.

    I would also like to know the first use of it in the common version “more heat than light”.


    June 25, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    • The phrase is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Ophelia’s father Pelonius tells her that
      “When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
      Lends the tongue vows. These blazes, daughter,
      Giving more light than heat, extinct in both
      Even in their promise as it is a-making.”

      In short, Hamlet’s ardent declarations are more show (light) than content (heat). This phrase is now used in a fashion quite contrary to its initial employ.


      November 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm

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