Deer in the headlights

Today’s Zits, in which Jeremy gives computer advice to his dad:

That deer-in-the-headlights look. Note the metaphorical idiom.

Here’s Evan Morris on his Word Detective site on the expression and its (cloudy) history:

“To look like a deer in the headlights” is an American expression meaning “to look stunned and at a loss for words when asked an unexpected question or made the center of attention” (“When I ask the tellers about Y2K, I get … deer-in-the-headlights stares…,’” Chicago Sun-Times, 1999). The phrase refers to the behavior of deer caught in the beams of car headlights at night, when they frequently simply freeze for several seconds rather than running safely out of the car’s path. Living in rural Ohio, I can attest to the alarming stupidity of deer in such situations. On the other hand, deer can’t hold a candle to possums, who apparently believe they’re immortal and run right at your car.

Deer have been freezing in car headlights for as long as there have been cars, so “to look like a deer in the headlights” was almost certainly making the rounds as a folk saying for decades before it made it into print. Pinning down the first person to use the phrase is thus probably impossible.

We do know that “to look like a deer in the headlights” leaped into the public vernacular in a big way with the 1988 Presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush [referring to Dan Quayle in the vice-presidential debate with Lloyd Bentsen].


2 Responses to “Deer in the headlights”

  1. The Ridger Says:

    This unfortunate behavior is exploited by hunters who take flashlights into the woods to “jacklight” deer – something that’s illegal everywhere I know of, but done nonetheless. (Is that “jack” the same one as in “highjack”, by the way?)

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