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“Thousand-yard stares”

Many phrases have entered common usage since Coronavirus began to dominate the headlines back in March: “social distancing”, “track and trace”, “immuno-compromised”. A phrase that has been around for many years but has only registered with me in the last few months, when reading articles about Coronavirus, is the “thousand-yard stare”.

I first encountered it on 6 March in this Guardian piece by Marina Hyde. Describing Matt Hancock, who is still Secretary of State for Health and Social Care here in the UK, she writes:

“Matt surely only got his current job because he can run at the same time as giving a thousand-yard stare, and deliver lines like: ‘Sorry, kid – I’m not that kind of doctor’ … ”

In April she used the phrase again, following Donald Trump’s suggestion that ingesting bleach might be a way to deal with Coronavirus:

“Every day brings another series of clips of public health officials, whose thousand-yard stares are turning into million-yard stares … ”

Around the same time, I came across the phrase in “Truth or Dare, A Book of Secrets Shared”, a series of essays edited by Justine Picardie. I bought it soon after it was published (2004) and it had remained mostly unread on one bookshelf or another since then. I had dipped into it occasionally but finally got round to reading every essay in the collection at the end of April. In the final paragraph of his piece “A Fantastic Life”, Jon Ronson writes:

“I’ve kept the magazine with the cover of Joel in Lapland … When I look closely at it I can see that Joel – although smiling – has something of a thousand-yard stare about him … ”

A week later I came across the words once again, in “Falling & Laughing: the Restoration of Edwyn Collins”, Grace Maxwell’s account of her husband’s recovery from the brain haemorrhages he suffered in his mid-40s. In a footnote on page 162 of my paperback edition (published in 2010) she writes:

“Pushing a frail Edwyn around the hospital with his bandaged head and his thousand-yard stare, looking a bit like Basil Fawlty in the episode about the Germans … ”

I suspect that “thousand-yard stare” will crop up again in my reading matter in the near future, but unlike “social distancing”, “track and trace” and “immuno-compromised” I have not yet used the phrase in everyday conversation.




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