August 29, 2007


... [gim'-lit - eyed].... adj.

Having keen vision. adj.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Ed.

With penetrating eyes: having eyes that seem to penetrate or pierce, or to notice everything. adj.
Encarta World English Dictionary, North American Edition



The phrase gimlet-eyed is worthy of careful study, not only for its flexibility in being able to spin out multiple meanings from its core meaning of "having penetrating eyes," but also for its powers as a figure of speech, a metaphor, powers that make the multiple meanings possible.

A figure of speech is a word or phrase that is a variation from what the reader expects, either in the order of the words or in the meaning of the words. Variations in word order are called schemes; variations in meaning are called tropes. (Gimlet-eyed is a not scheme. Therefore we will pass over it, except to say that the sentence "Fierce Susan eyed the intruder into a gimlet-stung stupor" is a scheme called inversion, a rearrangement of non-schematic "Fierce Susan gimlet-eyed the intruder into a stung stupor.")

Gimlet-eyed is a metaphor, a trope in which words from different domains (gimlet from the domain of human tools and eyes from the domain of human physiology) are put into an unexpected juxtaposition, challening the reader to discover how they are somehow similar.

Note that we are not speaking, here, of gimlet-the-beverage, i.e."a cocktail made with vodka or gin, sweetened lime juice, and sometimes effervescent water and garnished with a slice of lime" (American Heritage Dictionary).

Nor are we interested in "gimlet-eyed," which is playfully defined in the Urban Dictionary of American Slang as a reference to
an aging or world-weary barfly with eyes the color of a gin gimlet, or one who has consumed too many gin gimlets. "I do believe that gimlet-eyed gent has soiled himself."—urban, from contributor Joe Bone, Mar. 16, 2005.
Rather, our target is gimlet-the-tool.

Here we go:

gimlet [gim’lit]

1. A small hand tool having a spiraled shank, a screw tip, and a cross handle and used for boring holes.

Verb, transitive
To penetrate with or as if with a gimlet.

Having a penetrating or piercing quality: gimlet eyes.
Inflected forms:
gim·let·ed, gim·let·ing, gim·lets

Now that we know that a gimlet is a simple, spiral-shaped rod, with a handle at one end for turning and applying force, and a sharp point at the other for penetrating permeable material, we can begin to understand the full potential of our heretofore seemingly simple term, gimlet eyed.

To understand how gimlet-eyed can produce a plurality of nuanced meanings, we must understand its form as a metaphor, a figure of speech comprising two interacting elements: (1) a term to be enhanced, called the tenor, and (2) the "vendible" term which supplies the traits that will enhance the tenor.

In our metaphor, eyes is the tenor and gimlet the vehicle. The reader's action is to select traits that belong to gimlet and apply them to, or map them upon, the eyes, thereby giving eyes added meaning and effect.

Put another way, that which a gimlet can do physically, eyes can do metaphorically.

Thus far we have looked at how three current, reputable dictionaries have defined gimlet-eyed:

American Heritage:
Having keen vision.

With penetrating eyes: having eyes that seem to penetrate or pierce, or to notice everything—Encarta World English Dictionary, North American Edition

having keen vision adj.—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Ed.

The lexicographers at American Heritage transfered the quality of keenness from the end-point and applied it to the eye's capability of providing vision and as if by magic we have "having keen vision." Simple enough, isn't it. But in my view, too simple.

In a dictionary as sophistcated and comprehensive as the AM He, one would exect more of the traits associated with the gimlet — penetration, precision, efficiency (to name just three) to appear as metaphorically apt qualities of vision.


A quick way to understand the current nuances of "gimlet-eyed" is to read the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus for the term synonyms from "sharp-eyed":

Sharp-eyed: observant, perceptive, eagle-eyed, hawk-eyed, gimlet-eyed; watchful, vigilant, alert, on the lookout

To the OAWT's list, I'd add these intellectual traits: penetrating, insightful, thorough.

The Oxford American Writers Thesaurus; 33 Words sharp-eyed • adjective a sharp-eyed witness contacted the police synonyms : observant, perceptive, eagle-eyed, hawk-eyed, gimlet-eyed; watchful, vigilant, alert, on the lookout; informal beady-eyed.

Gimlet-eyed as defined in the 19th. century

In 20th. and 21st. century usage, gimlet-eyed is a hyphenated compound (as gimlet-eyed readers of this posting may have already observed), whereas in the past it was not, appearing, instead, as two words, as you shall see in the citation immediately below from E. Cobham Brewer's compendious Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which was is publication during the years 1810-1897:
Gimlet Eye (g hard) A squinting eye; strictly speaking, "an eye that wanders obliquely," jocosely called a "piercer." (Welsh, cwim, a movement round; cwimlaw, to twist or move in a serpentine direction.
Thus the "strict" 19th. century meaning of gimlet eye—an eye that "wanders obliquely"—was out-foxed in the 20th. century by the meaning Brewer had identified as "jocose," a term which the OED tells us is "[o]f the nature of a joke, or characterized by jokes; spoken, written, or done in joke; playful in style or character."

Speaking of matters jocose, Jeffrey Kacirk, in his deck of instructional cards titled Forgotten English Knowledge cards, recounts a decidedly jocose tale to illustrate the meaning of gimlet-eyed:
gimlet-eyed: Adjective for a sharp-sighted and inquisitive nineteenth-century person, derived from the name of an old piercing tool. A gimlet-eyed Saxon taylor named Tom was involved in a famous legend involving the lord of Coventry, who subjected his people to merciless taxation. His wife, Lady Godiva, pleaded on their behalf. Her husband joked that he would lower the taxes if she rode throughhe streets of Coventry unclothed. To his surprise, she did so, after asking the locals to close their shutters and stay indoors during her excursion. All complied except the taylor, who was remembered as Peeping Tom.



Joan Didion

Reeling from the sudden death of her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, and the life-threatening illness of her only daughter, the literary lioness [Joan Didion] canonized for her cool, gimlet-eyed view of the world discovered she’d gone temporarily “crazy” from grief. Writing her heart-rending memoir of loss and mourning, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005), was her road back to sanity.--

Dropping By: Writing to Live
AARP – March and April, 2007 Mark Matousek

To put the question more precisely, who in some writer's view has eyes that seemingly penetrate like gimlets or, by analogy, who has shown gimlet-eyed perception of how certain domains of life as we know it that is penetrating, precise, or insightful? To get some sense of who might be described as being gimlet eyed , I scanned scan roughly 300 Google hits for the word "gimlet-eyed," and found the following

George Bush
President Bush's steadfastness in battling forces that would destroy our way of life, and his gimlet-eyed recognition that international terrorism is primarily a military rather than a criminal-justice problem, are his most alluring assets.—Andrew C.McCarthy National Review Online November 13, 2003,

John Kerry
The granite-jawed, gimlet-eyed face beneath the VFW hat festooned with unit badges looked ready in an instant to swing a mean left hook. But Kerry's shadow man had only one arm and no legs. It was Max Cleland—Bruce Shapiro posted January 29, 2004 The Nation

Robert De Niro's character in the film "Meet the Parents"
Another actor might have mugged, stomped, spit and steamed from the ears. De Niro plays the suspicious father -- who has a secret life of his own -- for nuance. He's gimlet-eyed. He broods. He throws little sidelong glances. His moods range from a pained smile to tight-lipped disgust Bob Graham, Chronicle Senior Writer, Friday, October 6, 2000, SF Chronicle

Barak Obama
With just a few words about Pakistan today, Barack Obama transforms himself from a calculating, gimlet-eyed realist into a swaggering, steely-eyed Bushie.Which in turn transforms all those swaggering, steely-eyed Bushies into calculating.. ... Which in turn transforms all those swaggering, steely-eyed Bushies into calculating, gimlet-eyed Realists.-- Wednesday, August 1Blogrunner, Jonathan Blogoland

Dick Cheney
"wholesomeness doesn't really suit Chaney's gimlet-eyed intensity."-- 1998 Christopher Clotworthy, Silent film sources

Hogwart Witch

Gimlet-eyed witch* with a stout birch-rod-like wand - a portrait of this former headmistress of Hogwarts hangs in the Headmaster/mistress's office (OP22).--By Wendy Zellner-- MARCH 3, 2003—Business Week
*McGonagall, Minerva - she became the headmistress of Hogwarts when Dumbledore died (HBP29). m Mugglenet’s Harry Potter Encyclopedia—
Arturo Toscanini
"Toscanini - gimlet eyed and full of insinuation and menacing drive..." Jonathan Woolf - MusicWeb International-- Arturo Toscanini. Music for Freedom Concert--

Andy Griffith
"Andy Griffith--good God, you may have forgotten what a gimlet-eyed, stealthy delight the man is--shows up as Old Joe, the diner's owner, negotiating a seemingly beyond-hokey arc from curmudgeon to Jenna's spiritual adviser."—5/23/2007-- Ian Grey— Review: Waitress directed by Adrienne Shelly

Richard Nixon
Lyndon was fun, but Billy Graham found his true soul mate in the gimlet-eyed little quaker from California. “There is no American I admire more than Richard Nixon,” he said.-- Published in American Monsters, Nation Books, 2005

Jaime Lee Curtis
"Born to Hollywood luminaries Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in 1958, Curtis has been in the glare of celebrity throughout her life, and it has given her a gimlet-eyed view of fame."-- Psychology Today Last Updated: October 11, 2002--

Walt Whitman
"For Schmidgall, researching his Whitman biography, the biggest surprise in the Traubel material was “how pungent in expressing his dislikes, and capable of gimlet-eyed scorn, Whitman was—and also discovering his wry sense of humor. It was widely thought in his day that he lacked a sense of humor—a theory that Leaves of Grass, some might say, makes thoroughly plausible!”-- Cynthia Haven—Stanford magazine—Sept. Oct. 2001

Evelyn Waugh
"But there has always existed a small coterie of male writers who share the preoccupations of the novel of manners: the gimlet-eyed Evelyn Waugh, the underappreciated British writer Henry Green and, in our own time, Louis Auchincloss, who carries aloft the banner of the old guard.-- Louis Begley. Saturday, September 1, 2007 NYT

Office Receptionists

Still Gracious, Now Gimlet-Eyed

Remember the days when receptionists answered phones and fetched coffee? Now they've become front-line troops in the war against terrorism.

Across the country, thousands of receptionists are being sent off to various workshops that teach them how to increase security at their companies' front doors. The National Seminars Group's one-day Security Essentials for Front Desk Professionals, for example, includes how to "spot holes in security in your reception area" (such as subdued lighting and blockable exits) and identifying "red flag" behaviors. That means visitors who avoid eye contact or are vague about their intentions. Seminar execs say interest in their workplace-violence training, picked up after September 11. Participants are "more concerned about planned threats," says curriculum director John Carey. So far, though, there's no instruction on how to duct tape your office.

Which words like to "partner" in a sentence with "gimlet-eyed"?

Think of "Gimlet-eyed" as a verbal equivalent of Ginger Rogers. As she sashaying alone into a lively ball room, we immediately appreciate Ms. Rogers feminine beauty and her graceful gait. We appreciate her for her own essence, we might say. But as soon as she engages in dance with a nearby, eager-to-dance fellow—say, a fellow over there named Fred Astair, I believe—well, then we see her terpsichorical grace and dynamism extended and engaged with the grace and dynamism of Mr. Astair—and everyone in the room stops dancing to watch them dance.

In like manner, we value gimlet-eyed for what it is: a compact, memorable metaphor in which the gimlet is identified with the human eye. The qualities of the gimlet—its power to penetrate resistant matter, capability of providing a fresh line of sight, and delivering results with graceful efficiency—are transfered to the functions of the human eye, now significantly enhanced. All of these palpable qualities can be easily attached to abstractions such as
thorough, gimlet-eyed, superbly told story PRECISECRITICAL

Here, rendered in bold print, are characteristics embedded in gimlet-eyed that writers access to make a point:

his gimlet-eyed analysis of Melville’s hard-to-decipher manuscript

his thorough, gimlet-eyed, superbly told story
his gimlet-eyed memoir
gimlet-eyed acuity
gimlet-eyed analysis

gimlet-eyed view

gimlet-eyed focus
gimlet-eyed watch
look (often)
gimlet-eyed approach
gimlet-eyed view
novels which look gimlet-eyed at the future
gimlet-eyed scrutiny
gimlet-eyed perception
gimlet-eyed recognition

gimlet-eyed satirical humor
gimlet-eyed assessments
gimlet-eyed power-play
gimlet-eyed self-preservation I
gimlet-eyed deconstruction of social morays
gimlet-eyed demands
gimlet-eyed vigilance
gimlet-eyed parody
gimlet-eyed knack for nightmarish extrapolation
gimlet-eyed instinctsgimlet-eyed assessments
gimlet eyed interrogation
a bracing, gimlet-eyed sobriety
see the world in gimlet-eyed simplicity

Judge's gimlet-eyed knack for nightmarish extrapolation
gimlet-eyed authority
gimlet-eyed scorn,
gimlet eyed determination—a blogger

gimlet-eyed charmer
gimlet-eyed rules
gimlet-eyed humor
gimlet-eyed wit

gimlet-eyed observations
gimlet-eyed comparisons
gimlet-eyed comparison
gimlet-eyed cleverness
gimlet-eyed intelligence
gimlet-eyed instincts
gimlet-eyed and hilarious essay

gimlet-eyed worldview
gimlet-eyed pragmatism
gimlet-eyed optimism
gimlet-eyed world-weariness
gimlet-eyed realism
a gimlet eyed look at contemporary culture
Zoe looked at me gimlet-eyed—adv
view scrutiny focus often

gimlet-eyed descriptions
gimlet-eyed advice
gimlet-eyed erudition
gimlet-eyed images
gimlet-eyed appraisal
observation, depiction
gimlet-eyed survey
description scrutiny
gimlet-eyed approach
was quickly rebuffed with a gimlet-eyed "We're expecting someone!

There are . . .
gimlet-eyed readers, witnesses, inspectors, contestants, lawyers, moralists, reporters, buffo0ns, harpies,

Deutsch Englisch
mit scharfem Blick gimlet-eyed
mit stechenden Augen gimlet-eyed


Gimlet and gimlet-eyed, as explained in the Oxford English Dictionary:

1. a. A kind of boring-tool
The earliest citation of gimlet in the OED offers us, in fact, a definition of the term:
Gimlet, or perhaps more properly Gimblet, a piece of steel of a semi-cylindrical form, hollow on one side, having a cross handle at one end and a worm or screw at the other.1859 —Definition 1 of gimlet in the OED Online.


gimlet eye

gimlet eyed....adj.

Entry #3 among the several definitions of gimlet in the OED indicates gimlet can be used as attributively to describe another thing or used as a part of a combined form, giving "gimlet eye" as an example, which, in turn, it defines as follows:
(a) a squint-eye,
(b) a sharp or piercing eye; hence gimlet-eyed, having a gimlet-eye. ‘What said ye yer name was?’ said the old dame again, looking at me with her gimlet eyes.'

gimlet eye....(g hard)

A squint-eye; strictly speaking, "an eye that wanders obliquely," jocosely called a "piercer:


Final Thoughts

Some words are wired, we might say, to a simple electrical circuit connected to a switch that, when thrown, energizes the word, sending to the reader's mind a single beam of meaning. An example of such a word is the adjective "circular," as in "a circular hole in the wall." The hole is not oval, square, triangular, or jagged: it's circular, precisely so: a set of points in a plane, each point placed at a fixed distance, called the radius, from an established point called the center. It's circular.

Other words, such as gimlet-eyed, work with far more sophisticated wiring (perhaps even a circuitboard) which is routed to a panel of arrayed switches, each offering its own nuanced meaning. It's up to the reader, then, to throw the set of switches appropriate to the occasion, i.e., to the context of the sentence at hand.


1 comment:

  1. Wow, pretty thorough there, BJ! I like the term gimlet eyed, though I always thought it had something to do with the drink. This makes much more sense!