by one’s lights: Idiom Meaning and Origin

What does ‘by one's lights’ mean?

The idiom "by one's lights" means to do something according to one's own beliefs, values, or judgment. It implies that the person is acting based on their own understanding and perspective, rather than following someone else's opinion or standards.

Idiom Explorer

Illuminating Interpretations

By one's lights is an idiom used to express an individual's subjective perspective or judgment on a particular matter. It implies that someone is judging or evaluating something based on their own beliefs, values, or opinions. The idiom originated in the late 1800s and is commonly used in both spoken and written English.

This idiom, when broken down, consists of two key components: "by" and "one's lights." The word "by" is a preposition that indicates the means or method through which something is done. In this context, it signifies the manner in which one's judgment or evaluation is conducted. "One's" is a possessive pronoun that refers to an individual, emphasizing the personal nature of the judgment being made. Lastly, "lights" is a noun that metaphorically represents a person's understanding, perspective, or knowledge on a specific subject.

The phrase "by one's lights" suggests that an individual's judgment is based on their own understanding or perspective, which may differ from other people's viewpoints. It highlights the subjective nature of evaluating or perceiving things and acknowledges that different people may have different lights or ways of seeing and understanding the world.

When someone uses this idiom, they are essentially indicating that their judgment or opinion is influenced by their own personal values, beliefs, experiences, and knowledge. It emphasizes the idea that there is no universal standard for evaluating or interpreting things and that each person's perspective is shaped by their unique context and individual understanding.

Categorizing things by one's lights often leads to misunderstandings.

One related idiom is "by the eye." This idiom refers to visually assessing or perceiving something without relying on external measurements or instruments. It suggests that one's judgment or evaluation is based solely on what they can see or observe with their own eyes. By one's lights, "by the eye" can be seen as a more literal and immediate way of understanding or evaluating a situation, whereas "by one's lights" brings in the element of subjective interpretation and personal understanding.

Another related idiom is "believe one's eyes." This idiom is used when someone is presented with something unexpected or surprising, and they have to rely on what they see to accept the reality of the situation. By one's lights, "believe one's eyes" indicates that visual perception is a powerful and convincing form of evidence, and people tend to trust their own eyes more than other sources of information or opinion.

"in one's own little way" is yet another related idiom. It suggests that even though someone's contribution or impact may seem small or insignificant to others, they have their own unique and meaningful way of making a difference. By one's lights, this idiom emphasizes the individuality and personal agency in affecting change or leaving a mark, regardless of how minor it may appear to others.

"go one's own way" is an idiom that conveys the idea of pursuing one's own path or making independent choices, regardless of societal expectations or norms. By one's lights, "go one's own way" relates to the subjective nature of judging or evaluating something because it implies that an individual is guided by their own lights or personal understanding in navigating their own journey and finding their own unique solutions or perspectives.

This idiom is commonly used in discussions, debates, and evaluations where different viewpoints are being compared or contrasted. It allows individuals to express their subjective opinions while acknowledging the existence of differing perspectives. It also highlights the importance of considering multiple lights or viewpoints to gain a more comprehensive understanding of a particular matter.

The idiom "by one's lights" captures the subjective nature of judgment and evaluation. It emphasizes that each individual's perspective is influenced by their personal values, beliefs, experiences, and knowledge. The idiom invites us to consider and respect the diversity of viewpoints and reminds us that there is no single correct way to perceive or evaluate things. By exploring the myriad lights that exist, we can deepen our understanding and appreciate the complexity of the human experience.

Example usage

Examples of how the idiom *by one's lights* can be used in a sentence:

  1. He believes, by his lights, that hard work is the key to success.
  2. By her lights, it is important to always tell the truth.
  3. They made decisions by their own lights, without considering the opinions of others.

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