Scene from a Marriage:

BH and L, the father and mother (respectively) of 5-month-old baby G, stand in their kitchen. G has recently begun eating (BrE) baby rice/ (AmE) rice cereal.

BH: (holding up two plastic measuring spoons) Should we sterili{s/z}e these?

L: Why are there two?

BH: Because I can't find the teaspoon and one's a half-teaspoon and one's a tablespoon. I don't know how many half-teaspoons are in a tablespoon, and it's a teaspoon of rice and a tablespoon of milk.

L: Three teaspoons to a tablespoon, but you can just eyeball it. Three parts milk to one part rice.

BH: Eyeball it? What, are you a cop?

L: Why would a cop say 'eyeball it'?

BH: Because only cops in cheap American detective shows say that.

L: No--graphic designers say it...

BH: No, the cop eyeballs the suspect.

L: ...cooks say it; tailors say it.

BH: No way.

L: Why would a cop say it? It's about measuring.

BH: No, it's about staring.

L: No, it's about measuring.

BH: Prove it.

L: (wild-eyed) Is that a challenge? (determinedly) I'll take your challenge!

(Pan to beautiful but neglected baby...sound of maniacal typing at a computer keyboard. Fade to black.)
So while Grover sleeps on Better Half's chest, I'll fill you in on the outcome of my --ahem-- L's research. The (British) OED sides with BH, giving the verb to eyeball as AmE slang for 'to look or stare (at)'. But one shouldn't trust the 1989 edition of the OED to be up to snuff on American colloquialisms. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edn), on the other hand, gives two senses, both marked as 'informal':
  1. To look over carefully; scrutinize.
  2. To measure or estimate roughly by sight: eyeballed the area of the wall that needed paint.
So, it looks here like the OED is up-to-date on senses of eyeball that are known (as AmE slang) in the UK, but not on all AmE senses of the verb. In spite of the ignorance professed above, I have to admit knowledge of the first sense--it just wasn't coming to mind after I, I mean L, used the other sense. But I use the measuring sense often. Since the AHD lists it second, we can assume that it's a later addition to the language than the 'scrutini{s/z}e' sense, but Wiktionary lists it first, giving the impression that it might be a better known sense now. (I've put some feelers out trying to find out when the measuring sense arose. Will update if I get any info. Or will take hard evidence [personal memories are very unreliable when it comes to etymology] in the comments section, please!)

Fig 1. Neglected baby

Update (as promised), 3 June: My lovely colleagues on the American Dialect Society e-mail list have come through with dating info on the 'estimate a measurement' sense of to eyeball. I'm told that the Historical Dictionary of American Slang (which I have at my office...such is my problem with blogging at home) has a citation going back to 1946. Those who have looked on Google Books have found it only as far back as the 1970s (as did Doug in the comments here). But since it's slang, we'd expect that it goes back quite a bit further in the spoken language than in written sources--we just can't pinpoint when. If you'd like to see the discussion on ADS-L, click here. My thanks to David Barnhart, Mark Mandel, and Ben Zimmer.


  1. I've eyeballed your question AND your adorable baby and now will stand tall saying that I eyeball when I cook all the time! I eyeballed as a child 30 years ago with my dad when he told me to find a bolt that would fit a specific hole, or a wrench (er, spanner?) that would fit a nut.

    I read a lot of mysteries. "Eyeball" in the mystery sense is very noir, and not used so much in my solidly midwestern, non-cop verbal roots. "Eyeball" in the 'measure with your eye' sense is pretty common, mostly with guys (at least that's sort of my sense). "Eyeballing" is a little...too physical for 'ladies' to use; I speak of the olden days here when there was a clear difference between 'ladies' and 'women.' Nowadays we (all) tend to call it "guesstimating" rather than "eyeballing."

  2. IIRC, AHD order is not historical but frequency/importance order, so you can't put any reliance on that.

  3. Cat.--Guestimate or guesstimate is originally AmE too. But I prefer eyeball for measuring-by-eye, since guestimate can be any kind of estimating--not necessarily by sight. It sounds a little disgusting, I grant, but I guess that's why no one (in their right mind) ever calls me a lady.

    JC: You may be right, I may be mis-remembering about AHD. Got the definition off the web--my copies are at the office (and I won't be back there for some time).

  4. I know all the definitions, but I would most often use (Am/E)"to eyeball" as doing something by eye instead of measuring, and I know I grew up with that since that's how my mom (Can/E) cooked. (I am 46.)

  5. I don't have anything much to add about "eyeball". I understand it the way L. used it. For BH's sense of "eyeball", I would expect "eye" or "give a once over" or "check out". "Eyeball," used the way BH used it, sounds funny to me, antiquated maybe.

    I mainly wanted to pipe in and say "What an adorable baby!"

    What an adorable baby!!! She's beautiful!!

  6. My job at a UK university is working on digitisation projects in an office shared by academics and programmers (all of us BrE). From the programmers we've all picked up the habit of using 'eyeball' to refer to doing boring tasks with files/data that can't be fully or reliably automated (or not reliably) and so we have to check them over manually on the screen. (Outside that context I think I've rarely if ever used the term.)

  7. I was thinking this sounded like a perfect opportunity to practice some corpus linguistic skills (you said 'hard evidence', right?), so I checked the BYU/Time corpus, thinking that surely a trendy magazine like Time would have multiple uses of both types, but there was only one use of 'eyeball' as a verb:

    'Iowa voters have seen plenty of Forbes on the small screen; now they're keen to eyeball him in the flesh.'

    So that fits with meaning 1.

    I went to the Google 'corpus' after that, and the first two pages of search results for "eyeball it" had seven 'measurement' eyeballs, and only one 'scrutinize' eyeball. It could be that 'eyeball it' is a set phrase, though.

  8. Has BH changed the order of the meanings on Wikipedia yet?

  9. Grover looks mighty happy to be neglected!

    As a ScE 43 year old, I don't think I have ever before heard the measuring sense of "eyeball," but I am very familiar with its scrutinise sense.

    Interesting topic.

  10. All of what we call Web 1.0 in retrospect was about "eyeballs" and look where that got us :-)

  11. Thanks for the research, Joel, but the Google method doesn't easily give us info about _when_ it was first used. Being slangish (and infrequent in any case), it's not surprising that there's not a lot of corpus evidence for it.

    I'm betting that some dictionary out there has some info on it (in their files if not in their book), but we'll see if anything turns up...

  12. I'm an AmE technician in a product development group, and frequently "eyeball" graphical presentations of data to obtain a rough "guesstimate" of peaks or averages. I don't think I've ever eyeballed quantities while cooking, but I have measured them "by eye".

    What about the parallel expression of playing music "by ear" (i.e., improvising without sheet music)?


    BTW, Grover seems none the worse for such shameful neglect.

  13. MW10C (AmE, 1993) lists only "to look at intently" as a verb form (with a date of 1901). But it lists an adjectival form meaning "based on observation" (~ judgement) with a date of 1971.

    As I see it, the latter is equivalent to the verb form you were using.

    My unreliable intuition is that that date is too late for that sense, but the Google News archives don't have a use of "just eyeball it" from before 1975 (and that seems to be the "inspect" usage).

    I definitely have the sense you used as a regular part of my AmE vocabulary, though.

  14. I always say it was spotting someone is police terms, rather than scrutinising. Maybe I misunderstood all this time. And is it also a CB radio term for spotting someone too?

    By the way, I'm an English graphic designer and I have never used the term to refer to measuring something (if at all!)

  15. Hi,
    I love your blog - fascinating posts and oh so pertinent !
    Beautiful baby you got there too :)

  16. There is a rather curious equivalent in French: "à vue de nez" (from the sight of the nose). Apparently it is based on "à vue d'oeil" (from the sight of the eye), with nose taking the place of the eye. There's a similar expression, "au pif" (with the schnozz), meaning a rough approximation.

    The French and their noses!

    Although English does have the "smell test".

    All this is a pretext for me to write how cute I find Grover... I mean "G".

  17. There's also the wonderful use of the term in a military context, as seen in "An Officer and a Gentleman", where Lou Gossett, playing crusty USMC drill instructor Foley, orders the impertinent recruit Richard Gere "don't you eyeball me, boy", meaning, "don't you dare look me in eye, you worthless punk", or something very much like that. Hoorah.

  18. Google News says that in a 1967 article "Air Raids on North Vietnam Heaviest in 4 Months," there is a quote that says "If the target we're after is in a populated area, we've got to eyeball it first."

  19. That 1967 quote could mean either "scrutinize" or "measure by eye," though.

    I'm (AmE) familiar with the term as used by lynneguist, though I'd associate it more with carpentry (my father) than with baking (my mother).

  20. I would expect the 1967 Vietnam War quote to refer to visually inspecting the target, rather than depending on reported map coordinates, when there's a significant likelihood of civilian casualties if there were an error in targeting.

    As a native Californian 59 years old, my first response to “eyeball” would be to making a visual estimate, such as eyeballing a distance. However, in the proper context, none of the other reported uses would seem odd to me.

  21. When I want to know how slang is being used *now*, I turn to a Web search. Since I'm an editor, not a scholar, I don't really care how old something is. I care how recognizable it is.

    Of course there are problems w/ defining a phrase, and I haven't figured out how to search news material only, but usually I don't want to anyway (I want to know how readers are using the word, not editors)

    So, I tried "eyeball him" (1,990 hits) and "eyeball it"(80,000)

    "Eyeball her" gave me 2,200, but a lot of those were "eyeball. Her"--which actually wasn't common on "eyeball him."

    "eyeball the" wasn't helpful--WAY too many "eyeball. The"'s and besides it can be used both ways.

    Or course, "eyeball it" can be used to stare or examine, but for the pages I scanned, there didn't seem to be a high percentage of those; the measuring sense ruled.

    Jonathan Bogart wrote: I'd associate it more with carpentry (my father) than with baking (my mother)

    That's because you almost never eyeball something in baking. You can eyeball the chocolate chips, but you can't really eyeball the flour, sugar, baking soda, etc. Baking is pretty exact chemistry.

    Also, it's not as far across the kitchen to get the measuring spoons.

    (actually *fine* carpentry needs to be more exact than that, too)

    I would expect the 1967 Vietnam War quote to refer to visually inspecting the target, rather than depending on reported map coordinates

    I ran into this idea as well--on my "eyeball her" search, a doctor said "I'd need to eyeball her before I could" give a recommendation for surgery.

    So it's not so much always "stare" as "to direct your eyeballs at."

  22. an Irish relative, home economics teacher since the 50s, would say "measure (something) by eye".

  23. My goodness -- that little Grover is a handsome fellow! Thanks for sharing him with us.


  24. Thank you! But remember, she's a girl in spite of her nickname!

  25. I'd be much more likely to use "eyeball" in the estimation sense of the word. (northeast US)

    In the hard-staring sense, though, I keep thinking of the phrase "giving him the hairy eyeball." But that's more the sort of thing a disapproving great-aunt does than a hardboiled detective.

  26. Fascinating.

    I'd never heard the term eyeball used to refer to scrutinizing someone/thing.

    I'm from the US and have only used the term to refer to measuring by sight--when cooking, hanging pictures, etc.

    It's a term I hear and have heard with some frequency.

  27. I've never heard eyeball used to measure anything, I'm a Brit. In fact I've only ever heard its other meaning, to watch, from Americans

  28. I know the discussion has been about the verb, but for the sake of completeness, in the UK at least, the security services, police etc use the noun "eyeball" in the context of operations to mean a member of a covert surveillance team who has visual contact with the target. Vide: Harry Ferguson (pseud) Lima 3Bloomsbury 2005. Glossary page 303 of the UK paperback edition.
    BTW I'm disappointed to hear that Grover is her nickname. I had thought it might have been a tribute to Grover Washington.

  29. As an AmE, I immediately thought of the meaning that suggests a quick, casual measurement (quick and dirty). But, also, to stare at someone in a less than friendly way. Or even in an interested, intense way, to have one's eye on something with the intent of acquiring it, perhaps. I, too, thought of the intimidating glance already mentioned called a hairy eyeball. And, I've also heard it more recently used to refer to a method of completing one's work in a quick way, not taking the time to go through it with a fine-toothed comb, but trusting your skills and getting a project done quickly. I don't think I've ever related it to police surveillance.

  30. BrE. I have frequently seen eyeball in the sense “view in person”, rather rely on a report or photo. Not sure if that is always AmE. U.K. military slang talks about using “mark 1 eyeball” when no instruments are available.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)