The Grammarphobia Blog

A great eye for art

Q: I saw this the other day in the NY Times: “I love these African wood sculptures, and the antique Buddha head. You and your wife have a great eye.” That sounds odd! How can two people have “a great eye”?

A: Steven Kurutz, a Times feature reporter, made the comment in interviewing the “60 Minutes” correspondent Bill Whitaker.

The “eye” in his remark isn’t being used literally for one of the two organs of sight each of us is born with. In this sense, “eye” means visual discernment, taste, judgment, or appreciation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the usage this way: “The faculty of appreciation or judgement of visual objects (also situations, etc.), either in a particular context or for a specific quality.”

So a person—or a husband and wife who collect art together—might have “a great eye” for antiquities, for African sculptures, for design, or for anything else that’s visual.

The OED’s examples of this usage date back to the 16th century. The earliest is about combat and the importance of being able to visualize the enemy’s position:

“There must be a speciall care taken in viewing by experience, & the eye of a soldior, the scituation which the enimie occupyeth.” (From Sir Edward Hoby’s Theorique & Practise of Warre, a 1597 translation of the Spanish of Bernardino de Mendoza.)

In this later example, the “eye” is possessed by more than one person, represented by “we.” It comes from James Beattie’s Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783):

“If we have any thing of a painter’s eye, we are struck with the waving lines that predominate so remarkably in his figure.”

And the two of us can never resist citing P. G. Wodehouse. This is from his novel Hot Water (1932): “House-broken husband though he was, he still had an eye for beauty.”

In most cases, one person is said to have “an eye” for something, but there’s no reason that two people can’t share “an eye.” That is to say, they can share the same faculty for visual appreciation.

There are many other usages in English in which “eye” is used in the singular to mean something other than the organ of sight.

The expression “to have an eye for [or an eye to] the main chance,” for instance, has been around for more than 400 years. The OED says the expression means “to have consideration for one’s own interests.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from an Elizabethan drama, Robert Wilson’s The Three Ladies of London (1584):

“Trust me thou art as craftie to haue an eye to the mayne chaunce: / As the Taylor that out of seuen yardes stole one and a halfe of durance.”

This later example comes from Studies of a Biographer (1902), by Sir Leslie Stephen, who was Virginia Woolf’s father: “It … cannot be said that an eye for the main chance is inconsistent with the poetical character.”

The word “ear” has been used in much the same way. It’s often said of people who appreciate music that they have “a good ear.” This usage, too, has been around since the 16th century.

The earliest OED citation is from William Bonde’s The Pylgrimage of Perfection (1526): “In the psalmody … haue a good eare.”

And in this example, from William Hubbock’s Great Brittaines Resurrection (1606), both “eye” and “ear” are used this way:

“As the cunning eye in pictures, the skillfull eare in musicke discerneth more then the vulgar sort.”

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