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shameless pleading

Apple of one’s eye

Fruit of the Look?

Dear Word Detective: What does “the apple of my eye” mean?– Beth.

This is an interesting question for two reasons.  I’ve received it many times before, and I first answered it several years ago, but the story of “apple of my eye” is definitely worth repeating.  But now I’m wondering where people are hearing this phrase.  Although it’s a staple of word origin books, I can’t recall seeing or hearing “apple of my eye” used “in the wild” (outside of historical fiction and old movies) by an actual human since, well, forever.  I suspect that it’s one of those phrases that have survived purely because of their weirdness, like “the bee’s knees” and “the cat’s pajamas,” rather than because people actually use them in everyday speech.  On the other hand, there are more than nine million Google hits for forms of the phrase, so I guess it’s not in real danger of extinction.

To be “the apple of someone’s eye” means to be their “favorite,” the cherished object of their affections, and to be regarded as especially precious and dear to them (“He can’t live without you. You’re the Apple of his Eye, the Joy of his Heart, the Lamp of his Life,” 1693).  The phrase can be applied to anything, even inanimate objects (“He parked his 1932 Mercedes-Benz (he called it the apple of his eye) outside A Block,” 1987), but it’s probably most frequently used in reference to a favorite child or an unrelated but fondly regarded younger person (“Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye,” Sir Walter Scott, 1816).

As English idioms go, “apple of one’s eye” is about as old as they get.  It first appeared in print in the writings of King Aelfred way back in the ninth century, and crops up, in the modern sense of “cherished favorite,” in both the King James Bible (numerous times) and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

But before “apple of one’s eye” was used to mean “favorite,” it was used literally, as an anatomical term.  The “apple of the eye” was the pupil, the aperture at the center of the human eye.  At the time the phrase came into use, the pupil was erroneously thought to be a solid, round object, and it was called the “apple” because apples were the most commonly encountered spherical objects.

Because sight has always been considered the most important of our senses, and the center of the eye is thus arguably the most valuable bit of our anatomies, “the apple of one’s eye” quickly came to be used as a metaphor for “that thing which is most precious.”

Elsewhere in the wonderful world of ocular imagery, it’s worth noting that the word “pupil” for the aperture in the eye comes from the Latin “pupilla,” meaning “little doll,” referring to the tiny reflection one sees of oneself when looking into another person’s eyes.  The same root, in the broader sense of “child,” gave us “pupil” meaning “student in school.”  And when we say that we’d “give our eyeteeth” for something we desperately desire, we’re referring to our upper canine teeth, located directly under our eyes.  Not only are these teeth immensely useful in eating, but damage to them can cause severe pain in one’s eyes.

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