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Does anyone know the origin of the phrase "dar a luz", meaning "give birth"? Where or whom did this phrase come from? Is it unique to the Spanish language?

  • really good question both for translation and for etymology in general +1 – Mike Aug 23 '18 at 16:49
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+100

The use of the idiomatic phrase dar a luz to mean not just “bring to light” in general but by extension more specifically “give birth to” has its origin in providing a softer euphemism for human birth than for animal birth, where parir is more commonly use for the physical act of live birth. Today we use parir only for non-human animals or occasionally in medicine.

This phrase was originally used in this way by Christian writers in reference to the Nativity and the Light of the World. In one 1628 sermon regarding what they write as “la Expectacion de la virgen Maria” we read the following, in which the writer of the sermon forges a clear metaphorical connection between the original Christian Lux Mundi, the “light of the world”, and the birth event that brought this to light:

Unas venturosas esperanças son oy el motivo de la solemnidad presente, y la materia de este Sermon una Expectacion gozosa aun antes del logro feliz del Nacimiento, en que yà la Aurora celestial Maria està de parto para dar a luz al Sol de la eternidad, que ha de amanecer en tiempo de sus Purissimas Entrañas.

(Note also the phrase estar de parto: the use of parto for birth can also be found in the English words partogram and partograph.)

During the next century, this phrase still saw use in its broader, non-natal sense of “bring to light”, as seen on page XXVI of the front matter to the 1726 Diccionário de la lengua castellana:

Se juntará la Académia un dia en cada semana, para tratar, assi de lo que se fuere trabajando, para perficionar las obras que la Académia huviere de dar à luz, como da las matérias tocantes al gobierno, y buen régimen de ella.

Although we can find examples of using dar a luz in the special extended sense of giving birth dating back to at least the seventeenth century, it is only at the start of the twentieth century that it enjoyed a dramatic increase as shown in this Google ngram:

Google Ngram for "dar a luz"

The oldest Spanish translations of Genesis 38:1-5 have parió, but modern translations now all have dio a luz in those verses. That’s because today it is considered too “coarse” (rude) to use parir with human beings; that term is now mostly reserved for animals, or for insults imputing animal birth such as those ending in “...la madre que te parió”. We instead soften this for human beings and use dar a luz or occasionally the similarly extended sense of alumbrar to mean the same thing. (Some clinical uses of alumbrar have a more specific meaning related to what in English we call the afterbirth.)

Lastly, the use of dar a luz for this is not unique to Spanish. Portuguese has “dar à luz” and Italian has “dare alla luce” to mean the same thing. The only real difference between the Spanish use and the Portuguese and Italian uses is the addition of the feminine definite article before those other two closely related languages’ respective words for light.

French certainly does have the expression “donner (à, de) la lumière”, but there it is used in the more generally applicable sense of shedding light on something, not specifically for human birth. Nonetheless, some French writers are aware of the Spanish sense of the phrase, as shown here in an article from Le Journal entitled “Donner la lumière” about a novel written in “fragnol”, in which the author discusses her borrowings into French of Spanish idiomatic expressions:

« Non, ma mère était morte depuis longtemps lorsque j’ai commencé à écrire Pas Pleurer. Il s’est agi, pour moi, de la faire revivre, de la faire renaître, on dirait en espagnol “dar la luz”, “donner la lumière”. Et j’ai eu un grand bonheur à le faire.

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    The image of Christ as light (especially in birth) was very common in art in medieval Europe and comes from the Gospel of James 19:15-16 "And immediately, the cloud withdrew from the cave and a great light appeared in the cave so that their eyes could not bear it. / And a little while later the same light withdrew until an infant appeared" – user0721090601 Apr 29 '17 at 19:36
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    This is a little masterpiece, well done thcrist! I was specially surprised by the comment Note also the phrase estar de parto for estar embarazada. I am curious on why we say dar A luz instead of dar luz. What is the preposition a adding here? – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Apr 29 '17 at 22:24
  • @fedorqui Yeah ok, I'll accept that estar de parto for giving birth and estar sumamente embarazada for being incredibly pregnant aren't quite the same. :) As for why the extra a in dar a luz, I believe the answer may lie in uses like darle a luz un hijo, in that there’s room in that construction for adding the person who is being brought to light. It's interesting that the oldest Spanish translations of Genesis 38:1-5 have parió but modern translations have dio a luz. – tchrist Apr 30 '17 at 4:04
  • That may well be the case! It's funny today we were precisely discussing with my wife about the usage of parir, since she was surprised by its usage in the TV when talking about some women giving birth. To me, it sounds like words such as "viejo", "deficiente" and others: it names something too strong we have decided that needs some kind of euphemism, so we instead say "persona anciana", "persona con discapacidad". – fedorqui 'SO stop harming' Apr 30 '17 at 18:30
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    @fedorqui Glad to help. – tchrist Aug 23 '18 at 17:39
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I would like to add something to tchrist's answer. The expression may be even older than the Spanish language. I have found some texts of the XIII century that use a similar expression, but from the point of view of an outsider to the act of giving birth:

Empero la muiller cipdadana o burgesa no aurá ren de arras ni ninguna cosa por nompne de arras, si expressament no es dotada con instrumento público, ni el marido será constreynnido de dotar la depués el matrimonio, quar tal muiller, las arras que lis son assignadas, luego las pierde quoando ouiere fillo o filla, la quoal, uiua seyendo, ueniere a luz en este mundo, et encara que por poco momento biua. [...] Empero, si a la uegada la muiller de burgo o franqua ouiere criatura de su marido [que] ueniere a luz, encara que aqueilla criatura moriere luego que fuere nascida, perdrá luego la madre aqueillas arras.

Anónimo, "Vidal Mayor", c1250 (Spain).

The text is a bit difficult to read, but it uses the expression venir a luz ("come to light"). The expression dar a luz ("give to light") came somewhat later, reflecting the same act of giving birth, but this time from the point of view of the mother. It is first registered in the Diccionario de Autoridades from 1732, but you can find some matches much before that:

Por qué se alegra la mujer de haber dado a luz hijo de varón.

Juan de Pineda, "Diálogos familiares de la agricultura cristiana", 1589 (Spain).

The expression dar a luz also means dar a conocer ("to announce"). It may be the meaning of the expression in this text:

Encoruase gimiendo dolorosa
por dar a luz el parto quebrantado
el dolor, el gemido no reposa.

Fray Luis de León, "Libro de Job en tercetos", c1580-1591 (Spain).

Interesting choice of words, it could mean "to announce the birth", an expression that could have been simplified to dar a luz as "giving birth".

Also interesting is the existence of a similar word with the same meaning: alumbrar ("to shed light"). This can be found in the Covarrubias dictionary from 1611:

ALVMBRAR, dar lumbre. [...] En las paridas, alumbrar, es echar a la luz fuera del vientre la criatura, que estaua en el como en vna mazmorra obscura, y sin luz.

In fact, a synonym for parto in Spanish is alumbramiento. This word can be found with this sense starting from the XVI century:

Pues si esto hazen los animales brutos, cuyos partos son en perjuyzio de los hombres, a causa que sus hambrientos hijos comen a nuestros innocentes ganados, ¡quánto más lo deve hazer la muger preñada, cuyo parto y alumbramiento es en aumento de todo el pueblo christiano!

Fray Antonio de Guevara, "Reloj de príncipes", 1529-1531 (Spain).

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