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“Eyes wide shut” — Meaning, Context & Examples

“Eyes wide shut” — Meaning, Context & Examples

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Many expressions in English are metaphorical in nature.

Some of these expressions, such as close to the chest vs. close to the vest, are easy to understand.

However, many seem strange at first glance.

Metaphorical expressions like turn the other cheek are ancient, but some sayings are much newer despite how popular they’ve become in common usage.

Today’s phrase is one of the latter.


What does the expression “eyes wide shut” mean?

The expression “eyes wide shut” means that somebody cannot see something that is right in front of them. The expression is a play on “eyes wide open,” which means to be aware of your surroundings. Since your eyes are wide, that means you can see. But since they are shut, you are refusing to.

The expression “eyes wide shut” seems contradictory at first glance. That’s because, like many expressions in English, it’s metaphorical rather than literal.

The contradiction of the expression “eyes wide shut” is also the key to understanding its meaning.

When your eyes are wide open, it means you can see clearly. If your eyes are shut, on the other hand, you can’t see.

If you think about this more, the ultimate meaning of the phrase becomes clear. You can see because your eyes are wide. But you can’t see because they’re shut.

In short, “eyes wide shut” is an expression used to refer to people who refuse to see something that should be obvious to them.

The origin of “eyes wide shut”

The first recorded use of “eyes wide shut” is from an 1896 play by Robert Julian, in which a character jokes that he will guard a house by taking a nap with his eyes wide shut.

However, this is not really the same meaning and is clearly intended to be funny.

Most people know of this phrase because of the 1999 Stanley Kubrick movie Eyes Wide Shut.

The film follows a doctor who ignores his own blame for his wife’s daydreams of having an affair and then engages in increasingly sexual acts of his own with complete strangers.

Although Kubrick never stated where he got the title, it seems pretty clear it’s a play on the phrase “eyes wide open.”

In any case, the modern meaning of the expression of willful ignorance seems to come from this movie’s title.

The movie was a critical success despite lukewarm commercial success in the United States, and its release saw a boom in books and magazines using the expression.

In fact, many people started using the expression as early as 1997, when Kubrick first announced he was working on the movie.

The grammar of “eyes wide shut”

As anyone who understands the difference between clauses vs phrases knows, a phrase is a series of words that cannot stand alone as its own sentence.

Unlike many phrases easily identified by their main part as noun phrases or adjectival phrases, “eyes wide open” is idiomatic.

In other words, it’s best understood as a stock phrase.

These are set sayings in the English language that can be inserted into sentences and always carry the same meaning.

How to use “eyes wide shut” in a sentence

The way to use this expression in a sentence is fairly straightforward. It can be used just like the phrase “eyes wide open” would be, even though its meaning is different.

Because it’s a stock phrase, “eyes wide shut” is usually accompanied by some other specific words.

Most of the time, it comes after a verb like “have.” Alternatively, you can describe someone as doing an action “with” their eyes wide shut.

A final option is to insert the correct tense of the verb “to be” in between the words “eyes” and “wide shut.”

This can be used to describe someone whose eyes are wide shut without the need for a more complicated sentence structure.

Example sentences

“He had his eyes wide shut about how his wife really felt. None of us were surprised when she left him.”


“My mother always acted confused when she kept getting fired for berating her coworkers. She was going through life with her eyes wide shut.”

Both of these sentences show examples of people who should really be aware of their circumstances but refuse to see them clearly.

These sentences also show the expression as a stock phrase.

“Has your brother studied for the test yet?”
“No, he thinks he’s going to get a perfect score without it.”
“Wow, his eyes are wide shut, huh?”
Tell me about it.

This exchange between two people shows how to use “eyes wide shut” with the verb “to be.”

Another way to say this would be, “Wow, he has his eyes wide shut, huh?” Even though the structure is slightly different in the two versions, the meaning is the same.