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The words '新世紀' in the name of the anime '新世紀エヴァンゲリオン'(Neon Genesis Evangelion) means 'new era' literally, but in its English name, 'neon genesis' is used metaphorically.

A similar situation can be found in the classic song The Sound of Silence too, where 'neon god' is used to refer to modern technologies related things.

I wonder whether it's common to use the word 'neon' as a metaphor for 'modern' in daily life. If I use it in a small talk, can a random listener understand what I mean?

Is it used only in art or literature to make the works fancier? Considering the technology advance, is 'neon' a bit too old-fashioned since neon is actually an old technology? Is there a counterpart of 'neon' in use for nowadays?

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    My idea about 'neo genesis' is that 'neon' is kinda a metonymy for the epoch when the story happens. Hence it kinda indicates 'state-of-the-art'/new.
    – Michael
    Jul 18, 2022 at 16:23
  • I think you mean "technology" rather than "technique"
    – Esther
    Jul 18, 2022 at 18:16
  • @Esther Yep, part of my mind has been blank this whole time.
    – Michael
    Jul 18, 2022 at 18:20
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    "Considering the technology advance, is 'neon' a bit too old-fashioned since neon is actually an old technology?" Yes, exactly. Sound of silence was in the 60s, if you were to update the song the symbolisms used would be much different. Maybe it would be about social media and memes or the internet and ai these days. There's no "counterpart" to neon directly, because it never was a commonly used idiom, it's not like people were walking around and saying "that's so neon!!"
    – eps
    Jul 19, 2022 at 22:40

4 Answers 4

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Not in my experience, no.

The imagery I associate with “neon” is specifically neon lighting. It’s bright, it’s glary, it’s gaudy. It’s mainly used for business signage, so there’s an association with commercialism; the Las Vegas Strip is something I picture here.

It’s modern, yes, but it’s a very specific aesthetic: everything neon is modern, but not everything modern is neon. It’s also not very modern—neon lighting and the associated aesthetic is from the 20th century.

Bright, gaudy, possibly commercial; that’s what I would expect my audience to think of if I used “neon” metaphorically in small talk. If I wanted to use it to refer to modernity more generally, I would have to do some work to establish that metaphor myself.


In The Sound of Silence, consider the earlier verses: “My eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light… And in the naked light I saw / Ten thousand people, maybe more”. Neon is bright and glary, painfully so. I think the contrast is light versus dark, not modern versus traditional.

As for Neon Genesis Evangelion, I think the average person would just see it as a word salad title. While “neon” does derive from the Greek for “new”, I don’t expect most people to think of “neon” as meaning “new”, any more than they think “evangelion” means “good news”/“Gospel”. (They likely wouldn’t actually be able to define “evangelion”, just associating it with religion and evangelicals).

The related “neo” (usually seen as a prefix… or as a Matrix character) does have the meaning “new”, so that’s an option.

As a side note, “genesis” is literally “beginning”/“creation”, not “era” (世 sei) nor “century” (世紀 seiki). Again, it has religious connotations, which is probably why it was chosen as the translation.

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    As someone who knows nothing about animes, it is indeed a word salad to me. Cool to learn about what it was meant to mean though. Jul 17, 2022 at 17:43
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    Agreed about The Sound of Silence. It’s not a ‘modern god’ – it’s literally people worshipping neon signs, revelling in commercialism and capitalism. Jul 18, 2022 at 11:36
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    there is very little neon left in Vegas, with all those old signs in a museum. I'd say that neon has a retro feel, a specific point in the past.
    – prosfilaes
    Jul 18, 2022 at 15:32
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    @Michael Precisely because ‘neon’ is not normally used as an allegory for modern life, but it is commonly used for advertisements, consumerism and capitalism. Simon may have intended something else here, but he couldn’t expect people to understand the reference if he did. The song didn’t originate from the movie (I’m assuming you mean The Graduate) – it predates it by three or four years – so I don’t think you can use the character’s struggles in the movie as a basis for analysing the song. Jul 18, 2022 at 17:21
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    I do not know if this is widespread, but for me personally "Neon" brings images of the 80s. LED has almost completely replaced Neon where it used to be used, including the famous Neon vistas in Las Vegas and Hong Kong, and is not something I would associate with modernity anymore. It's also deeply entwined with the 'cyberpunk' aesthetic which despite being set in the future, aesthetically is drawn from that same era.
    – Chuu
    Jul 18, 2022 at 18:13
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No.

Neon, either means the chemical element, an inert gas. It therefore means the lights that use this gas to produces a bright red light. The lights can be made into curved tubes and used to spell words for signs outside places like casinos. This is the metaphor in the song, it doesn't mean "new god" (though it could be a secondary reference, a piece of word-play).

As an adjective it means "bright, florescent": "He was wearing neon yellow socks" means the bright yellow socks that seems to glow. You might use a neon highlighter pen when studying.

It never means new.

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The title Neon Genesis Evangelion is in Greek, not English. One way to translate it is, “Creation of New Gospels.” The word neon by itself is the plural neuter genitive of the Greek word for “new.” (In this context, it could not be singular.) In the original Japanese, the title was, Shinseiki Evangerion. The translator decided to replace the Japanese word, which would be totally unfamiliar to an English-speaking audience, with Greek words that would be vaguely familiar.

I think describing something as “neon” would make most Americans think of the bright color of neon signs (in American English, “neon lights” include colorful electric lights containing other gases, but not fluorescent lamps the color of natural light), or metaphorically, of the gaudiness of downtown Las Vegas.

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    Note that if neon is indeed meant to be νέον (nominative-accusative singular neuter), then the title makes no sense in Greek – it becomes just ‘creation new gospel’. If the title is supposed to actually make sense in Greek, both neon and evangelion should be in the genitive instead. In the singular, that would be neou evangeliou (νέου εὐαγγελίου), which doesn’t fit, but with a plural, it still fits: νέων γένεσις εὐαγγελίων ‘creation of new gospels’. Jul 18, 2022 at 11:34
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Good points; I edited my translation accordingly.
    – Davislor
    Jul 18, 2022 at 19:06
  • I think the genesis is meant to be capital-c creation. So 'new gospels about the beginning/creation' (overriding the old gospels) is how I've always seen it. But I don't know Greek except for the alphabet. Is that a valid interpretation?
    – mcalex
    Jul 19, 2022 at 10:01
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Broadly no, largely because neon's been around for more than 100 years. It might have retained 'state-of-the-art' newness as a metaphor for 'modern' until not-long before the Moon landings but like The Sound of Silence, those are today “so last century." (Though they seem like yesterday to people like me. Ouch!)

If it ever was common to use "neon" as a metaphor for "modern" that wasn't "in daily life" and it's no longer a thing.

That is indeed a way of agreeing "neon" is too old-fashioned since it's an old technology.

One counterpart of "neon" in use nowadays might be "silicon" which could already be passé but certainly isn't alone. Others include "wet-ware" meaning brain matter as opposed to hard- or soft-ware…

There are also inverted references such as "snail-mail" comparing slow traditional paper post to nearly-instant e-mail.

I doubt "neon" is still used to make literature or other arts "fancier"… if it ever was. Did The Sound of Silence try to make itself "fancier" or did it legitimately use a colourful (no pun intended), graphic term for dynamic effect? The point being that "fancier" is more about a bogus method than a better result.

Is it fair to cite '新世紀' or '新世紀エヴァンゲリオン' without English phonetic spelling and full literal translations? Still, "neon genesis" is much too far from "new era" to be anything but an artificial construct, forced upon the words for the convenience of the author.

"If I used it in a small talk, can a random listener understand what I mean" throws up more and different topics.

Quite separately, "random listeners" are people met in lifts or queues with whom we have nothing apparent in common. What we say to them is at best "chit chat", which has even less value than ”small talk."

By contrast "small talk" is with people we have at least some reason to want to be with, as on dates or at parties…

Further ”a small talk" always means "a short lecture”; never social intercourse.

Beneath any of that, the parts of any sentence must match in number, tense and every other way: you need either "If I use it… can a listener… ?" or "If I used it… could a listener… ?"

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