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‘Ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages’: French phrase of the week

We look at a light-related expression as Lyon’s Fête des Lumières begins

We look at a French light-related expression Pic: vihrogone / Shutterstock

Lyon’s annual Festival of Lights (Fête des Lumières) will begin on Thursday (December 8) with around 30 installations and light shows dotted around the city, to be enjoyed until Sunday (December 11).

Read more: Lyon light festival, renewable energy debate: The week ahead in France

On the subject of lumière, we thought of the expression ‘ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages’ (literally: to not have light on every floor), which is used to describe someone who is not very intelligent, or who is dimwitted or not very ‘switched on’. 

It conjures up an image of the different levels within someone’s brain failing to light up, as a piece of information or idea fails to permeate their understanding. 

An equivalent expression in English might be ‘the lights are on but nobody's home’, or ‘he/she is not the sharpest tool in the box’. 

It has been suggested that ‘ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages’ may relate to the phrase ‘ne pas être une lumière’, an expression used since the seventeenth century to describe someone who is not intelligent. 

Here, ‘lumière’ is employed with reference to intelligence in a similar way to the word ‘bright’ in English.

This expression is also linked to the Lumières period (the Age of Enlightenment), which was an era of cultural, philosophical, literary and intellectual progress beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century in Europe. It involved French thinkers such as Voltaire and Denis Diderot, and the way it redefined knowledge, culture and ethics influenced the reasoning behind the French Revolution among other events.

Alternatives to ‘ne pas avoir la lumière à tous les étages’ include ‘ne pas avoir inventé l’eau chaude’ (literally: to have not invented hot water) and ‘ne pas avoir inventé le fil à couper le beurre’ (literally: to have not invented the wire to cut the butter).

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