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Friday, September 26, 2014

“The Apple of My Eye”: 8 Facts on the History & Meaning of the Phrase

Do you ever wonder what “The apple of my eye” means? Or where on earth it came from? Wonder no more as we look at 8 fascinating facts on the history and meaning of this unique and poetic phrase.

“Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.” Psalm 17:8 





1) The English definition: According to the Oxford English Dictionary the phrase, “The apple of my eye”, means "the particular object of a person's affection or regard; a greatly cherished person or occasionally thing." Phrases.org defines it as “Originally meaning the central aperture of the eye. Figuratively it is something, or more usually someone, cherished above all others.”

2) The Bible:  This term has its roots in the Hebrew Bible and is thus translated five times in the English King James Version of 1611. The references in the Bible are: Deuteronomy 32:10, Psalm 17:8 (above), Proverbs 7:2, Lamentations 2:18 and Zechariah 2:8. Psalm 17:8 is quoted above and the rest are quoted at the end of this article.

3) Aelfred the Great:  The first reference in Old English is attributed to the great unifying King of early England– Aelfred the Great of Wessex. As a devout Christian and an advocate of education, Aelfred would have been familiar with the Bible and this specific term. It was he who first rendered it as “apple” in the English in his 889 A.D. work Gregory’s Pastoral Care.

4) Shakespeare: The next widely known use is in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1590 in which he writes: “Flower of this purple dye, / Hit with Cupid’s archery,/ Sink in apple of his eye”.

5) Sir Walter Scott: The first appearance of this phrase in Modern English is the use of it by Sir Walter Scott in his Old Mortality in 1816. He writes: “Poor Richard was to me as an eldest son, the apple of my eye.”

6) The Hebrew:  Here is where things become truly interesting. In 4 of the 5 mentions of this phrase, the Hebrew is ‘iyshown ‘ayin. The first word refers to the pupil of the eye but can be literally translated “The Little Man” – thus describing the tiny image one sees of oneself in the pupil of another person. Gesenius’ Hebrew Chaldean Lexicon defines it as “ A little man, i.e. pupil, in which as in a glass ( mirror) a little image of a man (woman or child) is seen.”

This is indeed the root meaning of the phrase in all cultures as stated in the American Heritage Idioms Dictionary “ This term… rests on the ancients’ idea that the eye’s pupil is apple shaped and that the eyes are particularly precious…”

7) The Latin:  Very similar to the Hebrew, the Latin word is pupilla , meaning a little doll. The root word is pupus ( boy) or pupa (girl) and also referred to the dark central aperture of the eye ( the pupil) because of the minute image a person sees of them self in another’s eye. This is also the word from which we get the English meaning for a student (child in school).

8) Zechariah 2:8: “…For he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.” The fifth mention of this idiom in the Bible uses a different word for apple than the others. Instead of ‘iyshown it is bava. The meaning of this word, bava, is disputed. Some believe it literally means apple while others like Gesenius says it has the meaning of a cavity or aperture and can be translated as gate – “The gate of the eye” (Not unlike the English reference to the eyes as the windows of the soul). Psalm 17:8 uses both ‘iyshown and bath, a Hebrew word meaning daughter. Lamentations 2:18 does not use ‘iyshown but bath only.

The meaning of the second word in the phrase ( which is the same in all 5 mentions) should also be noted. ‘Ayin can be the physical eye and also refer to the mental and spiritual faculties. Metaphorically it is translated as spring or fountain as well.


Photo credit: Squalor to Scholar


When we read the Biblical passages of this phrase, we soon realize that it is often used to refer to His children as the very apple of God’s eye. We are all God's creation but when, by the sacrificial death of His Son Jesus, we enter the family of God it is then that we become his children.

He protects and cares for us as the very midst of the pupil of His own eye! Can you imagine that love and intimacy? Just as we have a natural reflex to close our eyelids and protect our pupils when someone would touch them so it seems that it is in the very nature of God to protect and care for us.

Spurgeon writes: "No part of the body is more precious, more tender, and more carefully guarded than the eye; and of the eye, no portion more peculiarly to be protected than the central apple, the pupil, or as the Hebrew calls it, 'the daughter of the eye.' The all wise Creator has placed the eye in a well protected position; it stands surrounded by projecting bones like Jerusalem encircled by mountains. Moreover, its great Author has surrounded it with many tunics of inward covering, besides the hedge of the eyebrows, the curtain of the eyelids, and the fence of the eyelashes; and, in addition to this, he has given to every man so high a value for his eyes, and so quick an apprehension of danger, that no member of the body is more faithfully cared for than the organ of sight."

The Bible also refers to the apple of our own eyes. Proverbs for example exhorts us that the Word of God should be cherished as the apple of our eye. And so we see that what we look at the most – what is reflected in the pupil of our eye – is what we cherish the most. This is re-iterated in the New Testament when Jesus says “The lamp of the body is the eye. Therefore, when your eye is good, your whole body also is full of light. But when your eye is bad, your body also is full of darkness.” Luke 11:34

The human eye is both a window to see into and a mirror to reflect. A fountain, gate or lamp allowing good or evil to flow in and to shine out.  The apple of the eye is indeed what we focus on and what we  cherish above all else so let us consider what that apple is for each us.






Deuteronomy 32:10

“He found him in a desert land
And in the wasteland, a howling wilderness;
He encircled him, He instructed him,
He kept him as the apple of His eye.

Psalm 17:8

“Keep me as the apple of Your eye; Hide me under the shadow of Your wings.”

Proverbs 7:2

Keep my commands and live,
And my law as the apple of your eye.

Lamentations 2:18

Their heart cried unto the Lord, O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears run down like a river day and night: give thyself no rest; let not the apple of thine eye cease.

Zechariah 2:8

For thus says the LORD of hosts: “He sent Me after glory, to the nations which plunder you; for he who touches you touches the apple of His eye.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post Joe, thanks for helping get my history fix in for the day.

    ReplyDelete