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The expression in question occurs in the following passage from Moby-Dick

“It’s a white whale, I say,” resumed Ahab, as he threw down the topmaul: “a white whale. Skin your eyes for him, men; look sharp for white water; if ye see but a bubble, sing out.”

I get from the context that it may mean to actively look for something, to look for it with a substantial effort. I did some research, yet I have found no confirmation of my implied understanding of to skin your eyes for something. Am I not correctly implying the meaning of it? What do y'all think the phrase means in this passage? Do you know of any helpful reference?

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    A more common phrase, in today's usage, is "keep your eyes peeled". Oct 19, 2020 at 10:31
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    The underlying notion is that everyday human vision is obstructed by some film or veil over our eyes. A notable literary precedent is Virgil's Aeneid 2.604-6, where the hero's goddess mother removes a cloud or vapor, nubes, from before his eyes, enabling him to see the gigantic figures of the gods ripping apart the stones of Troy. Oct 19, 2020 at 10:35
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    Or 'keep your eyes skinned'. Oct 19, 2020 at 11:00

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As EL&U participant Walter Mitty points out in a comment beneath the poster's question, a more common idiomatic way of expressing the same idea today is "keep your eyes peeled [for something]."

Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, second edition (2013) mentions both "eyes skinned" and "eyes peeled" in the following entry:

keep one's eyes open Also, keep one's eyes peeled or skinned. Be watchful and observant. For example, We should keep our eyes open for a change in the wind's direction, or Keep your eyes peeled for the teacher. The first phrase dates from the late 1800s; the second and third, both colloquial and alluding to the lids not covering the eyes, date from the mid-1800s and 1830s, respectively.

And J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present (1896) has this entry:

To KEEP ONE'S EYES SKINNED (POLISHED or PEELED), or ONE'S WEATHER EYE LIFTED, NOSE OPEN, or END UP, etc.) verb phr[ase] (common).—To take care; to maintain a position; to be wide-awake, or FLY ["Knowing; artful"].

Here is an Ngram chart tracking the relative frequency of "eyes peeled" (blue line) and "eyes skinned" (red line) for the period 1800–2019:

These line plots indicate that both phrases were about equally common in published writing until the 1930s, when "eyes peeled" established a steady advantage of about two-to-one, that lasted until the late 1970s. From 1980 onward, however, "eyes peeled skyrocketed, while "eyes skinned" rose only modestly overall. As a result, Ngram reports that "eyes peeled" more than seven times as common in recent publications as "eyes skinned."

A Google Books search finds relevant instances of "eyes skinned" from as early as 1828/1831. From a diary entry dated June 25, 1828, reproduced in "Alphonso Wetmore's Report" (October 11, 1831), reprinted in Public Documents Printed by Order of The Senate of the United States (1831):

[June] 25th. Finished crossing [the main branch of Cow creek] at 10 o'clock; a good supply of fish caught last night and this morning. Reached the Arkansas [river] at 4 o'clock, encamped and replenished our shot pouches. "Keep your eyes skinned now," said the old trapper. We are now entering upon the most dangerous section of the trace, the war ground of the Panis, Oasages, and Kansas. This is likewise a fine buffalo country, but we have no hump! no marrow bones! and no tongue, except for our own parts of speech. Our hunters have brought in an antelope.

A similar search finds relevant instances of "eyes peeled" from as early as 1848, in "Editors' Table," in The Indicator: A Literary Periodical Conducted by Students of Amherst College (February 1851):

When our Alma Mater was in her swaddling clothes, and good old Prex used to get the students together, and advise them on keeping their faces clean and blacking their boots, &c., he used to touch now and then on matrimonials. "My young friends," he would say, "women is dangerous. In the lump, they are to be kept clear of. However, keep your eyes peeled, and if you come across a virtuous woman to your taste, why, just blaze her." The force of these remarks lies "in the application of 'em."

Melville's use of "skin your eyes" in 1851 is the earliest instance of that form of the expression that I've been able to find. Another (rather baffling) instance occurs in an untitled item, in the Gallipolis [Ohio] Journal (November 17, 1853):

Neighbor, stretch out your neck, cock your ears, skin your eyes and open your mouth, as you did when you tried to pass yourself for a Camanche brave, in Texas, (which, by the way, was no go,) then blow your breath, and let's hear what kind of a noise you can make. Dew it, neighbor, and let's hev the music. What did you with your cow tail and blanket? Your name at that time we suppose was "cheat'emeveryone," which has stuck to you.

This item makes a bit more sense when you understand that it is directed at a hostile neighbor (or perhaps a rival newspaper editor) of the Journal's publisher, as are several other blasts on the same page.

Another early instance uses "skin my eyes" as a kind of expletive, like "damn my eyes" or "shiver me timbers" or or "blow me down." From Roger Starbuck, The Golden Harpoon, Or, Lost Among the Floes: A Story of the Whaling Grounds (1865):

"Well, shiver me!" replied the shipkeeper, giving vent to a whistle something like the piping of a boatswain's mate, "if you don't pull and twist things about in the most lubberly fashion I ever saw, and all for the pur[p]ose of making 'em look ship-shape, which they can't and never will be for all that, so help me Stump. Why, skin my eyes! you might as well put a greenhorn in a tub on deck and then insist for a sartainty that he could lift himself clear of the bulwarks by pulling upon the sides of the tub. Them that says the days of miracles is past would be mistaken if the doctrine 'breeched' by you was a true one, which isn't the case, by any means."

Use of "Skin my eyes" as an exclamation or expletive does not seem ever to have been common, however.

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