Deer in the headlights

You talkin’ to me?

Dear Word Detective:  I am researching the phase “like a deer in the headlights.”  Could you tell me the date of origin and the person who was first known to have said the phrase?  I would also greatly appreciate a formal definition. — Bear.

That’s a darn good question.  By the way, I’m going to assume that “Bear” is simply your nickname, and that I’m not being enlisted to give one species of wildlife an unfair advantage over another.

“To look like a deer in the headlights” is an American expression meaning “to look stunned and at a loss for words when asked an unexpected question or made the center of attention” (“When I ask the tellers about Y2K, I get … deer-in-the-headlights stares…,’” Chicago Sun-Times, 1999).  The phrase refers to the behavior of deer caught in the beams of car headlights at night, when they frequently simply freeze for several seconds rather than running safely out of the car’s path.  Living in rural Ohio, I can attest to the alarming stupidity of deer in such situations.  On the other hand, deer can’t hold a candle to possums, who apparently believe they’re immortal and run right at your car.

Deer have been freezing in car headlights for as long as there have been cars, so “to look like a deer in the headlights” was almost certainly making the rounds as a folk saying for decades before it made it into print.  Pinning down the first person to use the phrase is thus probably impossible.

We do know that “to look like a deer in the headlights” leaped into the public vernacular in a big way with the 1988 Presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush.  Bush’s running mate,  Senator James Danforth (“Dan”) Quayle, was widely (and arguably unfairly) regarded as unprepared for the job of Vice President.  During a debate with Senator Lloyd Bentsen, Quayle defensively compared his level of experience to that of John F. Kennedy when he became President, to which Bentsen famously replied “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy.  I knew Jack Kennedy.  Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine.  Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Quayle’s reaction to Bentsen’s blast was described the next day by several commentators as “like a deer in the headlights, frozen in fear.”  Coupled with his subsequent verbal gaffes as Vice President (e.g., misspelling “potato” while judging a spelling bee and declaring, on another occasion, that “The future will be better tomorrow”), the Bentsen episode dogged Quayle throughout his single term as Vice President and made “like a deer in the headlights” a national catch phrase.

While Dan Quayle may have reluctantly popularized “like a deer in the headlights” in 1988, a “deer-less” relative of the phrase had appeared in print more than a decade earlier in the UK (“It is only when they commit some offence that they are caught in the headlights of history,” Daily Telegraph, 1971), although this usage seems to reflect the sense of “came to public attention” rather than the “caught clueless” meaning of “deer in the headlights.”

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