sloe-eyed, gamine

I am, as I write this, drinking a beer puckishly called Audrey Hopburn. It’s a fresh, pert item, engaging, complex, sweet and bitter, not transparent, and it comes in a taller-than-average bottle.

The name is, of course, a pun on one of the most charming and engaging leading ladies in Hollywood history, Audrey Hepburn, who – as we saw her in movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Roman Holiday, Funny Face, and My Fair Lady – was also a fresh, pert item, engaging, surprisingly complex, less transparent than she at first seemed, sweet but with little tart and bitter tinges. A New York Times piece once described her as “the prototypical sloe-eyed gamine.”

Does that sound flattering? Actually, how does it sound at all? I have seen the words sloe-eyed and gamine in print but I do not think I have ever heard them spoken. Sloe-eyed would be problematic, as it would sound just like slow-eyed; the issue with gamine is just that not everyone would know that it’s supposed to be said as “ga-meen” and not “gay-meen.” But, aside from “this writer is well read” and “this writer is talking about a young woman,” what do these words tell you?

I would say that the prototypical gamine of our time is Lisbeth Salander (of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo): a slight, tomboyish, pert young woman. The word gamine is a feminized form of French gamin meaning ‘street urchin (male)’. A gamine thus has something of the air or idea of a lean little street urchin, or at the very least she’s mischievous and perhaps a bit elfin. As the OED puts it, she’s “an attractively pert, mischievous, or elfish girl or young woman, usually small and slim and with short hair.” To take a cue from the word’s echoes, she’s game – that’s both game as in ‘ready for whatever’ and game as in ‘a wild animal who may be hunted’.

Well, that certainly sounds like fun. Does Audrey Hepburn really match it, though? I like this IMDB listing of her trademark qualities:

Her elegant beauty.

Often cast opposite leading men who were considerably older than she was.

Often played classy High Society women.

Charming characters who try to wear their troubles lightly

Wide, brown eyes.

Delicate, slender figure

She could easily seem young when playing against someone like Fred Astaire. The charm and insouciance might work with it, and the delicate, slender figure would play into it as well. And there’s nothing keeping a high-society girl from being a gamine – indeed, it’s almost a type.

And how about those eyes? A gamine will certain have quick eyes; will she have sloe eyes? What are sloe eyes?

The term takes sloe from the same sloe as is in sloe gin: a dark little oval-shaped plum with a pleasingly bitter taste (the word is probably cognate with the sliva that goes into slivovitz). Thus sloe-eyed can mean ‘dark-eyed’. But that’s not so often how it’s used, in my experience; usually people are going with the other sense: ‘almond-eyed’ or ‘slanted-eyed’ – in other words, rather the opposite of doe-eyed, and more in line with slope-eyed (a term which, however, is best avoided, as it has too often been used in racist ways). A person whose eyes make you think of an elf or a faun or some other magical being is a person you’re most likely to say is sloe-eyed. I can’t entirely shake the tinge of slur and slow and slough that sloe has, but at the same time I know that sloe-eyed is not an insult. Obviously.

Was Audrey Hepburn sloe-eyed? Maybe not quite as much as some, but do have a look at those wide almond eyes. Was she a gamine? If you overlook the fact that she was 5′ 6½” (1.7 m) tall, which is taller than the average woman (somehow she always looked shorter in the movies). She had just enough of the delightfully puckish little girl with flickering almond eyes (and maybe a little hint of pleasing bitterness) to allow a writer to justify trotting out a couple of favourite words from the lexicon of literary terms for young women. The writer could have called her a “magical little being” or “wood nymph” or “sprite,” but I guess sloe-eyed gamine will work fine for the image it conjures… for those people who know the words.

8 responses to “sloe-eyed, gamine

  1. Gamine reminds me of famine and gamy. And sloe, as you said, is a homophone for slow. Neither word has any associative charm — perhaps why they haven’t caught on?

    Carey Mulligan is my pick for modern sloe-eyed gamine. (See: An Education)

  2. Very interesting post. It reminded me of a variation of “gamine” which is used in Colombia in a pejorative sense: gamín. We keep the same pronunciation, and part of the meaning. We do take it further, though, When we call someone a “gamín” here, we mean to say they are a street thief. Nothing glamorous about that, though with lots of street wits.

  3. Mary H. Kendzicky

    …and the gigantic dildo crushes the Moon.

  4. Pingback: gimlet | Sesquiotica

  5. Pingback: Tiffany | Sesquiotica

  6. I would say Hepburn was “doe-eyed” not “sloe-eyed”

  7. The song “I’m Still Here” by Stephen Sondheim has the lyric “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp…” It was first sung on Broadway by Yvonne De Carlo, whose eyes weren’t dark, but they were almond-shaped. Like “gamine,” the expression seems to belong to the old studio days of Hollywood, when publicists had a certain vocabulary they would use to describe starlets.

  8. For people who know the words. I’ve had time with your writing that I enjoy. Gah-Minh. I’ve always thought it and prefer. Thanks.

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