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The Apple of Your Eyes & Too Much Shame Makes the Eyes Drop Out

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Written by   506
7 months ago

Eyes are used in many expressions: to keep an eye on, with open eyes, to see with half an eye, to make eyes at, to have an eye for, to see eye to eye (to hold the same view, to agree), with an eye to, in the public eye, in the eye of the law, and many, many more. Most of them are straightforward and relatively uninteresting. There are exceptions, however. We are going to take a brief look at two.

"The apple of one's eye", a thing or a person one cherishes. The phrase also stands for the pupil, which is in many languages compared to someone or something cherished.

In German it is called "Augenstern" [literally "eye star"], in the beginning referring to the pupil too. Similar to the Swedish "ögonsten" [literally "eye stone"].

"Augapfel" [apple of the eye] is another German word for the cherished one. Here the apple is not the pupil, however, but the whole eyeball.

Another German expression is "sich die Augen aus dem Kopf schämen" (to shame one's eyes out of one's head). There is a similar expression in Swedish: "att skämmas ögonen ur sig" (to shame one's eyes out of oneself). Obviously too much shame makes the eyes drop out!

The association of the pupil of the eye to someone or something precious is very old and can be found in many languages, although English lacks a corresponding single word. It is called the "Apple of the eye", but it is an idiomatic expression, not a word.

In the opera "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" [Julius Caesar in Egypt], for example, Cleopatra sings "V'adoro, pupille", which has been translated to English as "I adore you, eyes". It doesn't convey the true meaning. (It is noteworthy though, that in some languages "eyes" or "my eyes" can be a term of endearment. An example is Arabic.)

The expression "apple of his eye" is used in English translations of The Book of Deuteronomy 32:10. In King James's Bible the verse is translated to: "He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye." Other places in the Bible using the expression are Psalms 17:8, Proverbs 7:2, 7:9, and 20:20.

The Masoretic text (The Jewish Canon, on which most translations of the Old Testament to Christian Bibles are based, except those of eastern Orthodoxy) writes Deuteronomy 32:10 thus:

יִמְצָאֵהוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִדְבָּר וּבְתֹהוּ יְלֵל יְשִׁמֹן

יְסֹֽבְבֶנְהוּ יְבֹונְנֵהוּ יִצְּרֶנְהוּ כְּאִישֹׁון עֵינֹֽו׃

The two last words explicitly refer to the pupil of the eye as someone that is most beloved and precious. It is not far-fetched to believe that this is from where this connection came to be spread over the whole Christian world and the Middle East. I assume that it would be possible to trace it further back in time than this, but I have not had the time to do any research on that.

The Hebrew idiom literally means “little man of the eye”, and refers to the reflection of oneself one sees if looking another person in the eyes (pupils). The apple is absent. It was added later, probably because it is round - perhaps the most well-known globe-shaped object at the time - and blank, reflecting light.

If we return to English, Shakespeare used the expression "apple of his eye" in "A Midsummer Night's Dream", Act III, Scene II, where he lets Oberon say:

Flower of this purple dye,
Hit with Cupid's archery,
Sink in apple of his eye.
When his love he doth espy,
Let her shine as gloriously
As the Venus of the sky.
When thou wakest, if she be by,
Beg of her for remedy.

But King James's Bible and Shakespeare's drama are from the 1600s, "the apple of his eye" was used in English long before that by, believe it or not, King Alfred the Great of Wessex, in the 9th century. He translated several books and in one of his translations he says"[…] he protected them as carefully as a man does the Apple of his Eye". It is quite obvious from the way he used it, that it was not a new expression even then - but there is no recorded example that is older.

Yet, the expression was not commonly used until after 1816, when Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel, “Old Morality”.

Incidently, the word “pupil” is newer. It wasn't used in English for the dark area in the middle of the eye until the 1500s.

(This article is based on material previously published in Meriondho Leo and in my e-book “From Vision to Visual Music”, 2017.)

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Written by   506
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