By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word stare is a useful and common one. As a verb it means ‘to gaze fixedly’ at something or someone, although sometimes people can stare into space or stare at nothing. The eyes are always wide open. As a noun, a stare is such a look, as in a long, cold stare.
Indeed, so popular and widespread is this short word that it appears in several common idioms, such as it’s staring you in the face or to stop and stare.
As is often the case with commonly used words, there’s a risk of overusing the word ‘stare’. So below we introduce and discuss some of the best synonyms for this word. If you’re not going to stare, what else can you do?
Well, for a start, you can LOOK. This isn’t an exact synonym for stare because it loses the intensity implied by the latter word: you might look at something in a semi-attentive way whereas to stare is always to give it your full attention. But as a noun, the word is a fairly good match: just as we might talk of giving someone a stare, we can similarly speak of giving them a look, e.g., to warn them not to cross a line or otherwise to add emphasis to what we’re saying to them.
If you’re staring at someone to keep an eye on their behaviour, the verb WATCH captures this sense of ‘stare’ – such as in the phrase watching someone like a hawk, where it’s implied that someone is gazing fixedly at a person in order to monitor them.
There’s a whole raft of g-words which can be used as synonyms for stare. One even rhymes with it: GLARE. This word conveys disapproval or anger in a way that stare doesn’t automatically (although it can do), and is defined by the OED as ‘a fierce or piercing look’. Curiously, it may have been coined by John Milton in his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). Certainly, the OED’s first citation for glare is from Milton’s poem:
About them round
A Lion now he stalkes with fierie glare …
The same goes for GLOWER, which is usually reserved for angry or cross looks, although (chiefly in Scottish English) it can also mean simply to LOOK FIXEDLY at something or someone, or to GAZE intently at something.
Along with gaze, there’s also GAPE, which implies not only wide eyes but an open mouth, gaping open; the similar-sounding GAWP, as well as GAWK and GOGGLE, all convey a stare of surprise or shock rather than anger, and are therefore useful for these contexts.
The words OGLE and LEER also imply a different kind of staring: an ogle is a flirtatious or lecherous glance, more often the latter than the former these days, where we might speak of a man ogling a group of young women in a less-than-pleasant way. The word appears to be of Dutch origin, where it meant the same thing.
As for leer, this can convey a wider range of emotions and motivations, but is usually sly or discreet in its manner. It’s also not quite the same as a stare because it’s often a sideways GLANCE rather than a full-on, direct, wide-eyed look.
As a verb, the word EYEBALL has a curious history. Before it picked up its more familiar meaning in the United States, it was Australian slang for working extremely hard, especially at a manual labour job: the idea was you eyeballed yourself for your wages. This use of the word originated from the phrase to work one’s eyeballs out at a job. Although prevalent in the nineteenth century, this use of the verb is now obsolete.
It was only in the early twentieth century that the more familiar meaning arose in the United States: namely, to look and stare at someone, usually either in a threatening or a disapproving way. To eyeball someone is to OBSERVE them in a rather judgmental or intimidating manner.
Some forms of observing or staring are motivated purely by curiosity, even in the most inappropriate settings and at the least suitable times. And a now-ubiquitous synonym for stare which arose fairly recently is RUBBERNECK, meaning to crane the neck in order to gawp or stare at something, especially a car accident or a fire or some other dramatic scene (such as an arrest or an altercation). Sometimes its use is in a less shocking context, and rubbernecker is sometimes used as a substitute for ‘sightseer’ or ‘tourist’: someone who cranes their neck to look up and around them at all of the sights.
We say this ‘arose fairly recently’, but in fact the term rubbernecking is perhaps older than some people might realise: the word first appeared in the 1890s.
One final phrase we should give a mention in this context is to GIVE THE EAGLE EYE to someone, i.e., staring at somebody in anger or disapproval, and in a shrewd and sharp manner.
So much for the stare synonyms. What antonyms are there?
If staring involves gazing or looking fixedly at somebody or something, with one’s eyes wide open, then some useful antonyms conveying the opposite meaning include to LOOK AWAY and to AVOID EYE CONTACT.