Eyes like a hawk

Immature Northern Goshawk with fresh kill
Image via Wikipedia

During Wimbledon fortnight, Hawk-Eye’s acute computerised vision is in frequent demand as the final arbiter when players challenge a linesperson’s call.

Someone who has ‘eyes like a hawk’ misses nothing. Here’s a typical example from The Independent online:

With eyes like a hawk, he ducked and swayed out of the way of the short ball while England’s five quick bowlers took it in turns to try to bully him.

But what about the slightly different expression ‘to watch someone like a hawk’? This means ‘to watch vigilantly, especially to prevent wrongdoing’. But who is doing the watching?

The writer T H White documented his attempts to train a bird of prey in his book The Goshawk (1951), described on the NYRB (New York Review Books) website as: one of modern literature’s most memorable and surprising encounters with the wilderness—as it exists both within us and without.

White used a training method described in Bert’s Treatise of Hawks and Hawking, published in 1619. Here’s an extract from White’s beautifully written book:

Any cruelty, being immediately resented, was worse than useless, because the bird would never bend or break to it. He possessed the last inviolable sanctuary of death. The mishandled raptor chose to die.

So the old hawk-masters had invented a means of taming them which offered no visible cruelty, and whose secret cruelty had to be borne by the trainer as well as by the bird. They kept the bird awake. Not by nudging it, or by any mechanical means, but by walking about with their pupil on the fist and staying awake themselves. The hawk was ‘watched’, was deprived of sleep by a sleepless man, day and night for a space of two, three or as much as nine nights together.

And so the definition of ‘watching someone like a hawk’ becomes clearer: it is not the hawk doing the watching, but the hawk being watched with unceasing vigilance by its would-be master.

Another interesting falconry word: ‘seel’. Find out more at Logophilius.

What is the origin of the saying ‘lick into shape’?


13 thoughts on “Eyes like a hawk”

  1. Ha! Very cool derivation. I’d say the English and US sides could have used a bit of that futuristic computerized technology in the WC. Perhaps in another 20-30 years — when it’s well tested and all the bugs are out.

    1. Yes, I love this one. I ordered the book after reading extracts from it (The Goshawk, that is, not Bert’s Treatise).

  2. In Lords and Ladies, Terry Pratchett has a hawk-master called Hodgesaargh! Not his proper name but all anyone ever got as, every time his attention lapsed, as when introducing himself, one of his charges took a lump out of him…

    1. That’s very funny — thanks, Ron. I’m not familiar with Pratchett’s work so haven’t heard that before.

  3. Your second explanation – “to watch someone like a hawk” is ingenious, but totally unconvincing. Even if that is its origin, which I greatly doubt,I’m quite sure that a minimum of 99.99% of native English-speakers understand it in exactly the same way as your first explanation – “to watch someone with as much concentration as a hawk has when watching for prey”.

    1. Hello, Dai — yes, I think you’re right about how the saying is generally understood. Nevertheless, the alternative version is an interesting little diversion and something to think about. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s ‘totally unconvincing’: maybe just open to debate.

      1. Meanings change, often for the worse, “begging the question” being the classic that has now, through misuse, come to be generally understood to mean exactly the opposite of what it actually does mean.

        To me, it seems more than likely that it’s the case with this example, too. Being generally understood doesn’t make it right. Quite the opposite, at times.


        1. Hi, Ron — thanks. Yes, meanings do change — sometimes mysteriously. Another good example is ‘no love lost’ which now means that people dislike each other, often intensely. However, I think the original meaning was the exact opposite, although I can’t currently find a reference to verify that. I also think it highly likely that the original derivation of ‘watch someone like a hawk’ is as described in this post. But I guess there’s no way of actually proving it!

          1. Yep – “no love lost” – when it quite clearly is – has always baffled me. Still, there’s nowt so queer as folk…


  4. I found this, in Yahoo Answers, of all the unlikely places:-

    NO LOVE LOST – “They don’t like each other. For a while, several centuries ago, this phrase carried two opposing meanings, the one now current, and the thought of mutual affection. In the second, and defunct, sense of the phrase, the image was as of love shared in a common vessel: when affection was mutual, none of the love in the vessel was lost. An example is in ‘Faire Em,’ a fraudulent Shakespeare published in 1592: ‘Nor was there any love between vs lost. But I held in the same in high regard.’ In the other sense, while love is possessed by two people, neither is losing any of it over the other. A translation in 1620 of ‘Don Quixote offers this passage: ‘There’s no love lost,’ quote Sancho, ‘for she speaks ill of me too when she list.'” From “Dictionary of Cliches” by James Rogers (Wings Books, Originally New York: Facts on File Publications, 1985).

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