The Creative Exploration of Language


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 monosyllabic word with a commonly accepted definition (something like “a quick look”) that is used with reasonable frequency.  On the other hand, it is complex because it contains the relatively unusual but aesthetically pleasing consonant cluster “mps” and because its exotic construction seems to offer the promise of deeper meaning.  After all, if glimpse simply means to have “a quick look”, then why do we have also have glance?

The answer is found quickly once one investigates the origins of glimpse.  It comes ultimately from the Old English word glimsian, which meant “to shine faintly”.  In Middle English, this became glimsen and meant “to glow” or “to glimmer”.  So, from an etymological standpoint, glimpse clearly has a connection to seeing something that is both difficult to see and also something that stands out from its surroundings, usually through emitting light.  This is an interesting paradox and seems to limit the number of things that might become the subject of a glimpse.

The connotation of “quickness” that sometimes causes glimpse to be confused with glance is somewhat misleading and is a secondary characteristic that stems from a structural source: something that is difficult to see is likely to be seen only briefly.

Once this clarification between glimpse and glance is made, some interesting observations result, such as the dichotomy between the words in terms of being passive versus aggressive.  To glance at something is an active effort which is controlled by the glancer and which often, but not always contains a hint of disdain which is the natural byproduct of the active nature of the glance.  What I mean is that if one controls the length and intensity of one’s gaze, then it follows that, by choosing to give something only a quick, cursory look, one is indicating that the item or person being observed is trivial or merely utilitarian.

A glimpse, on the other hand, is passive.  Something glimpsed is something that is revealed to the observer, and is often something that is subtle, incomplete or incongruous.  The true power of glimpse is that it implies a mystery, an incomplete view that promises more and entices the observer to try to see the whole that is hidden.

While a glance might tell you how much your dinner cost or which person in your subway car is speaking too loudly on their cellphone, a glimpse is often the catalyst for an adventure.

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