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What Does It Mean to Get a "Green Light"?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English idiom, “green light,” refers to the idea of getting permission for a project or proposal. This is often used in the context of the phrase, “to get a green light,” from someone or some group. It is also used in the phrase, “to give a green light,” where the action is attributed to the person giving permission.

In addition to the above uses, this idiom can also come in the form of a single word, “greenlight,” which is in idiomatic verb that means give permission. For example, someone can talk about the boss of a company “greenlighting” a project. This form of the idiom corresponds to other common phrases in English language, for example, the single word “blue-sky” that means to brainstorm something.

Accounts differ as to the actual origin of the term, “get a green light.” This phrase relates directly to the idea of driving a vehicle, which makes it a phrase used more commonly in countries with more personal vehicles than mass transit. Over time, the idea of a green traffic light giving permission to a vehicle to move ahead got abstracted into many instances of the figurative “green light” giving people permission to do things.

The phrase, “get a green light,” is very often used in a business context. Someone at almost any level of a company might ask someone above them, or in other cases, a corporate board, to greenlight some allocation of funds. Staffers might ask each other, “did they greenlight,” a certain proposal or idea, especially those associated with the allocation of funds. In other situations, team leaders or others might explain to a group of people that, “we need the green-light to go ahead,” with something. This use of the phrase makes it clear that a project or proposal has been tabled or postponed because of a specific lack of permission or clearance or implementation.

The above phrase is a good example of a phrase that can be used in a question form, affirmative form or negative form. As shown in examples above, someone can ask about, “getting a green light,” as well as stating that someone did or did not get a green light for something. These are fairly straightforward, yet colloquial, ways of talking about permission.

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Discussion Comments
By Buster29 — On Jan 30, 2014

@Reminiscence, I never worked for the movie industry, but I did work at a video production company that had a lot of unsolicited scripts come in the mail. We'd have to sort through them all and pick out the ones that looked feasible. Those scripts would go upstairs to the owner and his people. It could take years for our company to greenlight a project, since the money and the talent had to be there at the same time.

By Reminiscence — On Jan 30, 2014

You'll hear the expressions "getting the green light" or "greenlighted" a lot in the film industry. A filmmaker will pitch an idea for a new movie and executives will discuss all of the pros and cons of that idea for a while. If they decide the project is worth funding and casting, then they will give it a "green light". That doesn't necessarily mean the movie will be made right away, but it does mean the money people are all on board with it.

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