Q: I’m reading Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin and I’ve come across the expression “misery lights.” Do you know what this means? (I’m sure you do!)
A: Readers of contemporary fiction may be familiar with the term, which has appeared in several novels. Here’s how it’s used in McCann’s 2009 novel:
“Some cops on the West Side Highway switched on their misery lights, swerved fast off the exit ramps, making the morning all the more magnetic.”
In Richard Price’s novel Lush Life (2008), the phrase “misery lights” appears three times, as when a police car sits with its “misery lights revolving.”
And in Clockers (1992), another work by Price, a police cruiser is described as “hitting its misery lights.”
The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, edited by Tom Dalzell, defines the noun phrase “misery lights” as “the colored lights on the top of a police car.”
The dictionary, citing the Clockers quotation, dates the usage from 1992.
Routledge doesn’t speculate about why they’re called “misery lights.” But we imagine that anyone who’s ever been pulled over by the police will have a pretty good idea.