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Why do we say the sun is out? We don’t say the candle is out or the light bulb is out. Why don’t we say the sun is visible?

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    Note that we also say "The sun has gone in" to mean that a cloud has come in front of it. – James K Oct 13 at 20:17
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    We do say "the light [bulb] is out", but we use it to mean that the light is dark (i.e., extinguished), or, sometimes, that the light bulb is burned out (dead, no longer working). – Sean Oct 14 at 4:32
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    @Sean Hmmm...but “the sun is out” means it’s “on”, while “the candle is out” means it’s “off”. – Lee Sam Oct 14 at 6:46
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    @LeeSam: Welcome to the English language. :-/ – Sean Oct 14 at 6:47
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    @JamesK - Interesting, I've never heard that before. Maybe it's a regionalism? – J.R. Oct 14 at 9:30
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That's a good question, and for many questions like this, there may not really be a single, known answer about how it came about, or why people say something one way but something similar a different way (known as "idiomatic speech"). Nevertheless, here's my opinion or educated guess:

Unlike other light sources, the sun is, first of all, something that's entirely beyond human control. There's no turning it on or off, no controlling when it's visible, etc. Because it is something that really exists and behaves on its own, it is common for people to use language phrases to describe such a thing which give the object volition, that is, that make it sound like the object is the one acting on its own behalf, like a person would. That is why you will often encounter things like:

The sun was hiding behind the clouds all day today.

(whereas you wouldn't usually hear somebody talk about a light bulb "hiding" behind a lamp shade)

Obviously, the sun isn't actually deciding whether or not to be behind the clouds, but it's a fun way to add some color to talking about things that happen that we have no control over. (Of course, in many cultures, historically, many people did actually believe that the sun and other celestial bodies had wills of their own, which may also have contributed to this sort of way of looking at and describing things as well.)

So what happens when the sun isn't hiding anymore? Well, given its volition, it must have decided not to be behind the clouds anymore and:

The sun has come out from behind the clouds.

(which is also a fairly common expression)

Obviously, at this point, the sun is "out" from behind the clouds. Over time, I suspect this phrase came to be used even when there weren't any clouds around as just a general meaning of "it's sunny":

The sun is out, and it's a beautiful day today.

And there we go.

(As a side-note, there's really nothing wrong with saying "The sun is visible", either, though it does sound a bit more technical/formal, rather than something you'd say in casual speech. An alternative to "The sun is out" which does have the same casual feel might be "The sun is shining", which people do also often say a lot.)

  • Interesting, the word “out” could be “visible or not visible “ or “on or off”. – Lee Sam Oct 14 at 0:53
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    @LeeSam With respect to the sun, it's the equivalent of Are you coming out to play? Or They have come out of the house. – Jason Bassford Supports Monica Oct 14 at 5:26
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    I'd add that "out" is a bit stonger than "visible", because visible is still possible through thin clouds or dusk and dawn but "out" implies that there is direct, strong sunlight. – Borgh Oct 14 at 6:55
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    @Borgh - Yes; similarly, I might say that "the sun is out" is a shortened form of "the sun is out in the open". – J.R. Oct 14 at 9:29
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    That certainly makes good sense. (Though plausibility seems to have little correlation with authenticity when it comes to etymology… Is there any evidence for it?) – gidds Oct 14 at 14:24
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"The Sun is out" is understood by analogy with out in sentences like these:

Is Johnny coming out to play today?

Hot jazz guitarist Ronnie Jordan's new album is out. (Source)

Never did I love anything so much as that spring, when the trees burst into leaf and the primroses came out. (That is, when the primroses bloomed. Source.)

The one place I was allowed to go by myself was the movies. … My parents wouldn't let me go out anywhere else, even when I was twenty-four. I didn't care. I wasn't used to going out, going anywhere outside of going to the movies. (Source: Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements by David Nasaw (1999).)

When the boat is out on the water, you can get a feel for its ride, responsiveness and performance characteristics. (Source)

Who let the dogs out? (Wikipedia)

We do light the Shabbat candles very often and I am happy when my children think of it themselves and bring the candles out on Friday evenings. (Source)

These all have in common the idea that when someone or something is out, it is in the public sphere, active, participating in public life or at least publicly visible. "In" is not (usually) the opposite of "out" in this sense. The opposite of "out" in this sense is to be in a private, secluded place, inactive, protected, or perhaps in preparation for public participation in the future, as in "My new film is not out yet. We're still editing."

Hopefully now it's easy to see how the Sun makes a natural analogy here. Saying that the Sun is "out" likens its emergence from the clouds to "coming out" in public. You could say, fancifully, that the Sun's public activity is shining light on public life. A similar analogy occurs here:

In the country, you can see the stars come out at night.

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    My naked weapon is out. Quarrel! I will back thee. – Mazura Oct 14 at 20:30
  • @Mazura Excellent example! – Ben Kovitz Oct 14 at 20:37
  • Not the link I was expecting for "who let the dogs out?" – Flater Oct 15 at 8:04
  • @Flater Hmm, yeah, that link was silly. Thanks for pointing that out. Usually I think it's great to link to videos of songs that are well known enough to be cultural landmarks, but in this case…I'll put in a link to Wikipedia. :) – Ben Kovitz Oct 15 at 12:13
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You said this in your question:

We don’t say the candle is out or the light bulb is out.

Actually, we do say both of those things in English. However, they mean something different, because the word out has several meanings.

In the case of a candle:

out (adverb) extinguished

We use this sense of out with flames or fire: The candle is out. The forest fire is finally out.

In the case of a light bulb:

out (adjective) not operating or operational

For example: The light bulb is out. Do we have any new ones around here?

We might also use this sense of out when describing a blown or faulty fuse. This is also the same sense of out when you see a sign on a vending machine that says: OUT OF ORDER.

As for the sun, there are a couple meanings that align with out on a sunny day:

out (adverb) in the open air; outside; into view.

So, on a sunny day, we can say, "The sun is out," or, when a bright moon is prominent in the night sky, we might say, "The moon is out."

The moon was out and visibility was good.

Source: B. Parker, The Power of the Sea: Tsunamis, Storm Surges, Rogue Waves, and Our Quest to Predict Disasters, 2012.

  • Yes, you are right. I guess I should have said, We don’t say the candle is out and have it mean the same as the sun is out. Very confusing... With the sun, “out” is really “on”. – Lee Sam Oct 14 at 16:17
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    @LeeSam - Well, actually, we can say "the candle is out" and have it mean much the same thing as "the sun is out." Consider this scenario: We are planning a fancy dinner, and we want to have a candle on the table. Usually, the candle stays put away in a cabinet somewhere. It's almost time for our guests to arrive, and I think the candle is still stowed in its usual place, so I say to you, "It's time to get out the candle," and you reply, "The candle is out. I put it on the table five minutes ago." (When a word like out has many meanings, we rely on context to understand the sentence.) – J.R. Oct 14 at 17:15
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    Or even "the sun, like all stars, will eventually go out when it has exhausted its fuel." – Phlarx Oct 14 at 18:41
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It's a metaphor that treats clouds like a hiding place. When you're in a hiding place, you can't be seen. You become visible when you come out of the hiding place.

The word "out" is used similarly in a phrase like "Come out wherever you are", which would be said when playing Hide and Seek and admitting defeat.

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As far as I can tell, it is a contraction of "The sun has come out to play", which in turn is an analogy to a child "coming out to play". Similarly, "the sun going in" is like a child going back into his house, ergo "end of fun".

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A candle or a light bulb is either out or lit, whereas the sun is either out or in.

Per @James K (comment on the question), the British say "the sun has gone in" to mean that a cloud has come in front of it. I've never heard that in American English, but I think that is a strong indicator that the use of the word "out" in this context, even in American English, is meant as opposed to in.

The sun, unlike candles and lightbulbs, is always lit (insert pedantic caveat about billions of years in the past or future here). It is simply visible or not, obscured by the atmosphere, the Earth, the moon, or something else. So the "off" interpretation of "out" is not relevant here.

Candles and light bulbs, on the other hand, don't generally move around nor become obscured from a given viewpoint, so the "in" interpretation doesn't apply there.

English is hard.

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