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What Does "Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed" Mean?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” is an idiomatic expression that means alert and ready for anything. It often evokes the behavior and appearance of squirrels, since many of them have bushy tails and they tend to be very aware of their environment. There is debate about when and where this term originated. Some believe it dates back to the 19th century or earlier and suggest it is American in origin. Sources like the Oxford English Dictionary agree the phrase originates in America, but list the first examples of it in print in the 1950s.

A good argument could be made that this expression, though it is not explicitly written out, originates earlier, in England. In the late 19th century Rudyard Kipling’s collection of stories, The Jungle Book, includes a short story about the mongoose, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. He is described as incredibly alert and a light sleeper.

When Rikki-Tikki-Tavi fights cobras and other snakes his eyes glow a bright red and his tail sticks out like a “bottlebrush.” The presence of mind it takes to attack a dangerous cobra is at the very heart of what is meant by being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. In the mongoose’s case, the expression takes on something of a dangerous cast, which is not necessarily an element of this idiomatic phrase in other uses.

If bright-eyed and bushy-tailed is evocative of squirrels instead, it is more a description of a person’s ability to be alert and adjust quickly to circumstances. Many teachers hope to enter their classes and see students displaying this kind of enthusiasm. These are pupils who pay attention to lessons and swiftly apply what they learn.

The 1968 novel The Technicolor Time Machine by Harry Harrison perhaps captures the most classic understanding of the term, with the sentence: “You look very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed this morning,” as cited in The Oxford English Dictionary. Many people are more apt to be alert and ready for any type of challenge first thing in the morning, if they’ve had a good night’s sleep. It is much harder to maintain this kind of concentration as the day progresses.

Some synonyms for the phrase include wide-awake, enthusiastic, and chipper. Lively, active, or ready for anything could be substitutes for this expression, too. This phrase is used frequently in common language, and there is a comedic aspect to it. Humans clearly don’t have tails and it’s difficult to say whether their eyes are bright. Nevertheless, they can convey this sense of being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed by looking particularly alert and ready for action.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On May 06, 2014

@bear78-- I think this idiom can also mean "enthusiastic" or "excited." For example in the sentence: "She went to school bright eyed and bushy tailed."

By bear78 — On May 05, 2014

@SteamLouis-- But I think that squirrels are more alert and they move very fast. So it is more likely that the idiom is about squirrels.

I understand that cats fluff up their tails sometimes too, but squirrels are always like that. A cat is not always ready for everything, but squirrels are. I also don't think that "bright eyed" applies to cats.

Regardless of where the origin of the idiom is from, the meaning is clear. It doesn't only refer to someone who is alert, but also someone who is lively and energetic. It's someone who is perky and cheerful.

By SteamLouis — On May 05, 2014

This idiom reminds me of my cat when she is scared. When she sees a dog or a person she does not like, her pupils grow large and her tail fluffs up and becomes three times its regular size. Cats do this when they sense a threat, to appear larger than they are. And their eyes look different because they become more alert to protect themselves. I know that she feels threatened when she does this and I pick her up and take her away.

I actually think that this idiom may have been first used about a cat. It fits very well.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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