I would like to know what is the origin of the expression "one eye on the past, one eye on the future". After googling for it, all I get is references to songs.

  • 2
    WThe allusion is probably to Janus, Greek god of the new year, 2-faced, one half looking to the past, one to the future. January's named after him. As for the saying itself, I've no idea. Have you looked in Brewer, Bartelby or another reference book of phrases? Mar 20, 2014 at 21:04
  • 4
    You'd think if it were Janus, you'd be keeping 2 eyes in each direction. To me 'keep an eye on X' is a common enough phrase that extending it to using one for the past and one for the future is simple enough to come up with without needing to steal it from a common source.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 20, 2014 at 21:16
  • I just watched Ray Mears' Extreme Survival in Belarus. At the end of the episode, one of the Belarusian Jews speaks of an "Russian saying".. "if you keep one eye on the past, you are blind in one eye but if you forget the past, you are blind in both of your eyes." Similar proverb.
    – user120772
    May 7, 2015 at 5:02

4 Answers 4


The earliest citation I can find in Google Books for this phrase is:

1948   ‘Father John Doe’ The Golden Book of Tolerance 42   Keep both eyes on the present ... Some people have one eye on the past and the other on the future, instead of both on the present. We should never waste time deploring the past and being apprehensive of the future.

‘Father John Doe’ was the pseudonym of Ralph S. Pfau (1904–1967), a Catholic priest and recovering alcoholic whose “Golden Books” were influential texts in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement.

There are some earlier near misses, for example:

1788   Joseph Boruwlaski Memoirs of the celebrated dwarf 153   I ſhould have been too happy in my new ſtate, if it had been poſſible that ſolely minding the preſent I had not caſt an eye on the future

▸1823   John Kitto Essays and Letters (1825) 41   It is with mingled pain and pleasure that I cast a retrospective eye on the past, and with anxiety that I look forward to the future


I think it refers to the Greek god Janus, but because we are human and not like the two-faced god, we can only keep one eye in each direction, since we only have one face.


I can't remember where I heard it, but I believe it's a reference to an old Alaskan Inuit Legend, a description of Qanglaagix I think, the full line goes something like "Qanglaagix keeps one eye on the future, and one eye on the past, that way his flight is always clear" or something of that nature.

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. This answer, as it is written, approaches being a guess. You may have a good answer, but you will need to edit and provide citations for any information .
    – J. Taylor
    Feb 22, 2018 at 11:16

This Proverb comes from a Chameleon which is able to operate it's eyes independent from one another i.e one eye can see in front while the other at the back with an angle of 360°

  • Welcome to English Language & Usage. You may have a good answer, but, the answer needs citations to verify the information. Otherwise, it is just a story, or opinion.
    – J. Taylor
    Mar 11, 2018 at 12:46

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.