If your eyes are on the ground, where did you put your boots?

I keep a very long list of potential topics for this blog. It tracks unusual words and phrases, odd or incorrect usages, new coinages and definitions, as well as all sorts of things that I happen to find interesting at a given moment. Due to the way the list keeps growing compared to the frequency of my posts, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to all the topics. In fact, there’s a second list where I move topics which have stopped being interesting, or which have had enough coverage in other places, or which just don’t have enough value (or enough material to work with).

A phrase I had heard repeatedly around two and a half years ago came close to moving to that B-list: “eyes on the ground.” Then I heard it prominently again this past week, so that’s the topic today.

What the heck does it mean? And should you embrace it, live with it, or avoid it?

My quick opinion first: “eyes on the ground” should be avoided. It’s a careless mixed metaphor (probably a fusion of “boots on the ground” and “eyes on the target”) that at its core doesn’t really mean much of anything. It fails what Orwell described as the primary test of a metaphor: “to call up a visual image” (Politics and the English Language, 1946). It’s not such an abomination as the singing octopus Orwell used as his example, but it’s pretty bad. When you write (or say) “eyes on the ground” your reader is likely to get one of two mental pictures, both wrong: either the eyes are literally resting on the ground (silly), or the eyes in question are looking downward (defeating the meaning the phrase is meant to convey, of having someone in place and actively observing the situation).

Now, some more info and a longer justification. First of all, there isn’t much out there on “eyes on the ground” one way or another. If you search around for the phrase, most of the uses you’ll find aren’t relevant to the metaphorical lapse. They tend to be descriptive, and actually concern people physically looking down at the ground. A lot of these uses aren’t well written, but the meaning is clearly understood. “He had his eyes on the ground” isn’t as precise or correct as “he stared at the ground,” but there isn’t much opportunity for confusion.

When I’ve found “eyes on the ground” usages which are clearly of the mixed metaphor variety, they’ve almost all fallen into two categories (or perhaps only one category, with a subset): military jargon and journalistic use. The phrase seems popular among military personnel, former military personnel, military commentators, and those who spend a lot of time around those groups (thus the seepage into journalism). I located an outlier, a use in the context of EPA enforcement, but that almost serves to prove the rule. How and when did this phrase come into use? I can offer some speculation.

“Boots on the ground” has become a fairly familiar phrase, primarily in discussions of a military presence but sometimes in other contexts. The definition is simple: troops (or other physical presence) actually on the ground in the place being discussed. Wikipedia suggests the phrase was coined by a British officer in Malaya in the 1950s but doesn’t give a citation. However, without too much difficulty, I was able to find a print reference with the right context and meaning in a Congressional Quarterly Weekly from 1956 (“The decision to retain 10 Army divisions appears to reflect a decision that ‘boots on the ground’ remain a uniquely potent pledge of U.S. support.”). The phrase was known and used in military circles during the Vietnam era, and there’s no doubt that it’s surged in popularity since 9/11.

“Eyes on the target” has been less widely used, but is also primarily military (as opposed to the similar and singular “keep your eye on the target” which is used mainly in sports contexts). Having eyes on the target means what it says: the target is being observed at that moment. The phrase gets a lot of use in movies and television programs that portray military and intelligence operations. I can’t supply good origin data, but Google Ngrams shows a noticeable (and temporary) first spike in its use around World War I, strongly suggesting military use.

I can’t rule out that the “eyes” part of the mixed metaphor comes from another source (perhaps “eye on the ball” which has print uses going back over 100 years). But “eyes on the target” seems likeliest to me.

When did the clumsy “eyes on the ground” mutation start getting used? That’s hard to tell, but there’s a 2008 book about the NSA in which one of the sources interviewed uses the phrase. She’s discussing a surveillance program of questionable legality, by the way, years before Snowden. This 2005 book also uses the phrase, as does this work from 2002 and even this report from 1999 (as a chapter heading). First use citation is fuzzy — and I don’t have the time to be thorough — but the phrase hasn’t just winked into existence. It’s been lurking in the shadows of weak language use for well over a decade, and possibly much longer.

As far as I’m concerned, it should stay in those shadows. Keep your eye on the ball, your ear to the ground, your shoulder to the wheel, and your nose to the grindstone. But make the effort not to use “eyes on the ground.”

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Additional Notes:

As I put this post together, I noticed that I’ve written about mixed metaphors several times before. If you want to review those episodes, here are the relevant links (each link to a different post).

Another thing worth emphasizing is that I have stated repeatedly on this blog that everything I post should be considered my opinions and suggestions. Sometimes my opinions are strong, and sometimes I suggest, in short, that you’d have to be an idiot not to agree with me. But I only suggest and recommend. There are things I like about evolving usage and things I don’t, and I’m not usually afraid to write about them here. The wonderful thing about modern English is that it doesn’t have a whole lot of hard rules: it’s all about what you and your audience will accept. If you don’t like my suggestions, that’s your business (…but don’t say you weren’t warned when your audience treats you as illiterate).

I’m bringing this up to remind readers that what you read here isn’t set in stone. It’s only one guy’s carefully thought out judgement. There’s no reason to take it as gospel. I even change my own opinions now and then (including the strong ones). One visitor to this blog recently left a very strongly worded comment on one of my recommendations. What bothered me about the comment wasn’t that it was strongly worded, or even that it was something of a drive-by attack from an anonymous troll. It was, at the bottom, the fact that this reader seemed to think that I’ve set myself up as some sort of ultimate expert on all the issues I choose to address. The reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. I’m knowledgeable and interested, but I’m just one voice in a very crowded public square. I research many sources and digest the views of many other people to form my own opinions. But it would be a violation of what I believe to suggest that my own readers won’t do the same.

Thanks for your support!

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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