A Closer Look at 7 Famous Idioms About Eyes

3 min read

Humans have five senses, but we tend to make a big deal about what we can see with our own eyes. Maybe that’s why the English language has so many idioms based on vision, seeing, and sight. People can be “more than meets the eye” or a “sight for sore eyes.” Things can happen “out of the corner of our eyes” or “in the blink of an eye.” Here are just a few eye idioms that you may want to glance over.

An Eye for an Eye

Many of our classic idioms can be traced back to the Bible. Leviticus 24:19-20 says, “If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Contemporary usage often turns this into a reason to seek retribution for wrongs or slights, but in the Gospels, Jesus turned this saying around by telling his disciples, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.” (Matthew 5:38-39). Mahatma Gandhi agreed, famously saying, “An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.”

Come Up Snake Eyes

In gambling, snake eyes appear when a player rolls two dice, and each one lands with the number one showing. Hence, they look like a pair of eyes staring up at the players. Generally, scoring two is not a great roll for a gambler, though this depends on the game's rules. Outside of gaming, the phrase “snake eyes” also means the worst possible outcome in a situation. This 1930s term likely originated from superstitions that pair snakes with duplicity and bad luck.

Eyes in the Back of Their Head

Mischievous children might believe that their parents or teachers have eyes in the back of their heads, as they seem to detect all manner of troublemaking occurring behind them. This idiom dates back to Aulularia, a third century BCE play by the early Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. One character calls another “A most vile wretch, who has eyes in the back of her head as well."

Pull the Wool Over Her Eyes

If someone tries pulling the wool over your eyes, they are trying to deceive you. This phrase originated with 19th-century British lawyers and judges who commonly wore white wool wigs. A judge’s wool hairpiece might metaphorically slip in front of his eyes, blinding him to the truth.

Scales Fell from Their Eyes

This biblical idiom comes from the New Testament. As the Apostle Paul traveled to Damascus, he saw a vision of Jesus that blinded him. Later, he visited another disciple, and “immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once” (Acts 9:18). If the scales fall from one’s eyes, like Paul, the truth is suddenly apparent. The reference to “scales” likely comes from a Greek translation of a filmy, milky covering of the eye, similar to cataracts.

Seeing with the Mind’s Eye

There’s always more than what the eyes can see. The term “mind’s eye,” likely first used in the 15th century, refers to the visual memory or imagination. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about “thilke eyen of his mynde / With whiche men seen, after that they ben blynde.”

Visible to the Naked Eye

In this turn of phrase, “naked” means anything perceptible without the assistance of technology such as microscopes or telescopes. This expression dates back to the 17th century at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, when scientists, astronomers and other great thinkers realized there was more to the world than they could observe with their own two eyes.

Feature image credit: mtreasure/ iStock

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