A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.
Try searching the Internet for goggle and you will most likely be asked, “Did you mean google?” Etymologists won’t be much more help, as they are as stumped by goggle’s origins as Google is by its spelling. What we do know about it is that it first shows up in the late 14th century, in the form of the word gogelen, a Middle English word with the meanings “to turn the eyes from one side to the other, to look sideways, squint,” and developed from there.
The first senses of goggle dealt with the movement of the eyes—quite literally the rolling or bulging of eyes. It was not until the early 18th century that goggle took on meanings that extended beyond the eyeball (though not very far beyond). In the early 1700s, speakers of English used the plural goggles to refer to large, protective eye coverings. As the use of cars became more widespread in the early 20th century, the demand for driving goggles increased. Though only vintage car enthusiasts have a need for those today, safety goggles can commonly be found in any high school chemistry class that follows standard safety codes.
While those types of goggles are designed to protect, a new kind of goggles, which do nothing to protect the wearer—beer goggles—surfaced in English in the late 1980s. This slang term for the metaphorical goggles an extremely drunk person “wears,” with the effect of diminishing their judgment, is still widely used today. Perhaps beer goggles protect wearers in a way; they do, after all, offer the wearer the protection of reduced accountability.
“Borrowing a pair of goggles from one man and a coats from another and a cap from another, I was soon in the driving seat, the engine going, and all ready to be off.”
Ten Year of Motors and Motor Racing
“The moon was full. The light it cast was enough to travel by without using their night-vision goggles.”
—Barack Obama, “Awarding the Medal of Honor to Staff Sergeant Salvatore A. Giunta,” American Rhetoric (delivered November 16, 2010)
“Then came a volley of expletives in an unknown tongue, and in a voice so deep and harsh that the hair of the three heads bristled, and three pairs of eyes goggled with fright.”
—Charles M. Skinner, “The Devil’s Bridge: a Philippine Legend,” McBride’s Magazine, Volume 64 (1899)
“Hari goggled his eyes, unrattled by my taunting.”