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Imagine a group of people trying to rob a safe, or two people having sex where they should not. Afraid of being caught, they look around every few seconds to make sure no one sees them.

Is there one verb (or maybe a short verb phrase) to capture that sort of looking-around? I need a way to express that concisely and formally.

11 Answers 11

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It sounds as if they're making furtive glances. From the linked definition:

attempting to avoid notice or attention, typically because of guilt or a belief that discovery would lead to trouble; secretive; suggestive of guilty nervousness.

To address a comment by @talrnu that a furtive glance is a discreet action in the company of others rather than a check for the presence of observers:

I recognize your meaning but find it restrictive.

In any case here's another possibility - on the qui vive defined as being on alert and watchful, as a sentry on post.

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    I think you're misinterpreting the definition of furtive - a furtive glance is one made subtly in the company of others, so nobody else notices the glance is being made (e.g. when a girl is checking a guy out and she doesn't want him to notice she's ogling him). The glances being made in the asker's examples are almost certainly not furtive, as those activities are being performed under the assumption that nobody is watching at all. – talrnu Jun 1 '15 at 13:31
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    @talrnu As I suggest in my edit, I think furtive always carries an element of guilt, of knowledge of wrongdoing, which the OP does. A better word for what you describe might be surreptitious. – Jim Mack Jun 1 '15 at 18:36
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    -1, sorry. The OP's example situations include furtiveness and glances, but not furtive glances, which (as talmu says) would be if the people were trying to conceal the glances themselves. – ruakh Jun 2 '15 at 7:13
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    In the OPs examples, the activity is secret, the glances aren't. When you cast a furtive glance, your activity isn't a secret, your glance is. I wasn't gonna weigh in because there's a conflict of interest, but I'm surprised so many people disagree with @talrnu. – Tushar Raj Jun 2 '15 at 8:44
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    @CommaToast: ...because "furtive" describes the character of the glance.... Exactly. In the examples, the glance isn't supposed to be furtive. The act is. – Tushar Raj Jun 2 '15 at 8:49
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Looking over one's shoulder [Oxford]

Be anxious or insecure about a possible danger:

It's usually figurative, but it could work here.

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    I gravitate toward this one as it implies you're focusing on a task (robbing a bank or having sex, like the asker's examples) but trying to also keep watch for a danger that might approach from behind (hence the mention of a "shoulder"). – talrnu Jun 1 '15 at 13:26
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    I don't like this one because it implies looking behind you, but you might be looking around in 360 degrees. – CommaToast Jun 2 '15 at 3:02
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To be on the lookout or on the alert (for someone or something) may fit your context:

  • watchful for someone or something. Be on the lookout for signs of a storm, be on the alert for possible intruders.

The Free Dictionary

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In Latin the exact verb you want is "circumspecto". Unfotunately it never became a verb in English—just an adjective, "circumspect." Still, you could just say something like, "One thing that made Mephistopheles such a sought-after safe-cracker was the fact that he always remained circumspect during the task. As a result of such broad and keen awareness, he had even managed to crack safes in the presence of periodically passing guards. Some even said he had eyes in the back of his head, but he later said that he simply had the neck of an owl."

  • +1, I had to register just so I could vote for "...had the neck of an owl." – Fred Kline Jun 2 '15 at 8:11
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Checking the coast is clear is a common idiom to describe this type of behaviour. The idiom comes from the time when boats were used for smuggling, and the smugglers obviously had to check the coast was clear; i.e. no-one was watching them.

  • Good one, but the checking of the coast is usually done before the secret activity. Not during. – Tushar Raj Jun 2 '15 at 8:47
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Reconnoiter or reconnoitre as in military recon

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    Hello, user123690, and welcome to English Language & Usage. When a question asks for a single word or brief phrase that means some particular thing, it is tempting to answer with nothing more than a potentially apt word or phrase. But at this site we favor answers that flesh out such suggestions with a relevant definition from a reliable reference work (such as a dictionary) and some further explanation of why the word as defined in that way is a good match for the situation described in the question. Please consider adding such substantiating details to your (potentially very good) answer. – Sven Yargs Jun 1 '15 at 19:31
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Skulk captures moving while trying to hide/avoid detection

Lie doggo "lie doggo" comes up in David Weber's sci-fi novels as a more colorful "recon" though general search has it pretty passive.

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I've always called that 'having a shuftie' where it's a single action, not an ongoing situation like a posted look-out. It can be and is used more innocently, but it's also employed when there is something a bit illicit about the look. Similar to 'squiz'. In cockney, it might be 'butcher's'( ..hook). It's the use of slang, especially in an otherwise slang-free sentence that might lend the dodgy tone to the word.

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You could say they were scoping for onlookers. According to Oxford one definition for scope as a verb is:

North American informal Look at carefully; scan:

they watched him scoping the room, looking for Michael

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"Watching vigilantly" is a possibility.

From Merriam-Webster:

VIGILANT

: alertly watchful especially to avoid danger

I agree that with Talmu* that it is the behaviour of the group (robbing or having sex) that is furtive, not the glances.

Another option is "keeping their eyes peeled". From Collins :

keep one's eyes peeled or keep one's eyes skinned

to watch vigilantly (for)

*see his comments on Jim Mack's answer.

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In British English there is a colloquialism 'to case', but it suggests actions a little in advance of the nefarious activity to be performed. So if you were to rob a post office you might 'case' it the day before to get an idea of who comes and goes, likely problems, escape routes and so on. Perhaps this is not quite what you are after. You frequently here the cliched 'casing the joint' but more in jest than anything else.

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