Glimpse has a beautiful ring to it which stems, I think, from the fact that it is both simple and complex at the same time. It is simple in the sense that it is a commonly used, monosyllabic word with a clear definition (something like “a quick look”). On the other hand, it is complex because it begins with the relatively unusual but aesthetically pleasing consonant cluster gl- which connects it to other words that begin the same way and raises an interesting question. Namely, if glimpse means to have “a quick look,” why do we also have glance?
Glimpse ultimately comes from the Old English word glimsian, which meant “to shine faintly.” In Middle English, this became glimsen and meant “to glimmer.” So, from an etymological standpoint, glimpse clearly has a connection to something that is seen, but with some amount of difficulty, because it is faint or inconstant.
There is a secondary connotation of “quickness” attached to glimpse that I initially assumed had a structural source: something that is difficult to see is likely to be seen only briefly. However, after a bit of thought I realized that there are other words beginning with gl– that have connotations related to sight and quickness: glint, and, as mentioned above, glance. For instance, it would not be uncommon to hear someone say, “I only had time to glance at it.”
So, back to the original question posed above: if both glimpse and glance mean “a quick look with some degree of difficulty,” why are both in common usage?
The key factor that distinguishes glimpse from glance seems to be related to who is controlling the action when the glimpse or glance occurs. Glimpse tends to indicate passivity in sentences such as “I caught a glimpse of the star,” or “I glimpsed a rainbow.” In both of these examples, I am at the mercy of the object being viewed; it is the star and the rainbow that are the drivers of the action. They are the thing that is happening to me and my attempt to “catch” a glimpse of them demonstrates the reactive nature of glimpse. I can only catch what has been thrown, has fled, is falling, etc.
Glance, on the other hand, tends to be used to indicate an action such as “I glanced at the check,” or “I glanced in my rear view mirror.” In both of these sentences, I am the one driving the primary action. While the length of the action may be short (otherwise I would have said “look”), the implication is that I decided when the action began and ended.
The power of glimpse lies in the incompleteness and yearning that comes from not being able to fully see something, to not be fully in control of the object being viewed. This withholding of the whole creates a sense of attraction, a teasing playfulness that pulls the viewer in.
While a glance might tell you how much your dinner cost or whether the car behind you is too close, a glimpse draws you into mystery. It is the catalyst for an adventure.