‘worm’s-eye view’: meaning and origin

With reference to a view taken as from the standpoint of a worm, i.e. from ground-level, the phrase worm’s-eye view denotes a view as seen from below or from a humble position.

This phrase was coined after bird’s-eye view, which denotes a view of a landscape from above, such as is presented to the eye of a bird.

The phrase bird’s-eye view is first recorded in Anecdotes of Painting in England; With some Account of the principal Artists; And incidental Notes on other Arts; Collected by the late Mr. George Vertue; And now digested and published from his original MSS (London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1782), by the English author, politician and patron of the arts Horace Walpole (1717-1797):

The noblest and largest landscape of Rubens is in the royal collection. It exhibits an almost birds-eye view of an extensive country with such masterly clearness and intelligence, as to contain in itself alone a school for painters of landscape.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase worm’s-eye view that I have found is from A Tale of Latitudes, first published in The Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia, USA) of Friday 1st July 1898:

“Here’s a scorcher now, Simpson. There’s Venice; if Venice stood still and the earth turned round under her, what places would get a worm’s-eye view of Venice? You give it up. Well, north Wisconsin, Simpson. Just think of it—up there in the land of saw mills and dance houses, brook trout and cold summers, Venice and Ashland! There are 2,000 miles difference in the climate of those places. Minneapolis and St. Paul, too, would see Venice as they rolled under.”

In 1899 and 1900, the phrase worm’s-eye view was associated with Henry Mayer (1868-1954), a German cartoonist and illustrator who, after working in Munich, Paris and London, emigrated to the USA. He adopted the standpoint of a worm in some of his cartoons—and he used the phrase to caption them. This was mentioned in the following from The Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Thursday 2nd November 1899:

The new caricaturist who has come among us, Mr. Henry Mayer, is likely to stay. The collection of his works in black and white, hung at the Clifford Galleries, in the Haymarket, London, sufficiently attests his versatility and genius, and sanctions the popularity of his contributions to illustrated and periodical literature. His style is virile and fresh, broad and sympathetic, his ideas are original and fertile, and his humour is piquant and inexhaustible. […] One of his new ideas is “Worms’ eye views” of a theatre, of a fire, and of other scenes and events.

And the following is from the review of the above-mentioned exhibition of Henry Mayer’s drawings, published in The Morning Post (London, England) of Monday 6th November 1899:

The “Worm’s Eye Views” of divers incidents, a fire, a picnic, a wedding, are original in conception and cleverly executed. From the point of sight indicated everything is inverted. Persons and objects of all kinds are represented in topsy-turvy fashion.

This is one of Henry Mayer’s drawings, titled Worm’s Eye Views of Us. A Wedding, as published in The Poster: An Illustrated Monthly Chronicle (London: Hugh MacLeay) of April 1900:

Worm's Eye Views of Us. A Wedding - Henry Mayer - The Poster. An Illustrated Monthly Chronicle (London) - April 1900


The phrase worm’s-eye view was associated with an unnamed cartoonist in Theatrical Notes, published in The Topeka State Journal (Topeka, Kansas, USA) of Friday 28th December 1900:

The Christmas number of The Dramatic Mirror is a handsome issue. It has an artistic cover page in colors that represents a star, arrayed as one of the trimmest twentieth century girls extant, beaming joyously, imbued with the happy spirit of Christmas-tide. The Christmas Mirror is bright from cover to cover with special articles and verses appropriate to the season in addition to its usual live budget of information of and about stage folks. Illustrations are more than profuse, including many clever cartoons, among which the “Worm’s Eye Views of Current Plays” takes high rank. “Sledgville, December 25,” is the title of an exceedingly clever Christmas story by Philip Jacques. For minuteness and accuracy of detail this vivid life story of three stage folks is suggestive of Dickens, while for weirdness and horror Bulwer * is nearly equalled.

* This refers to the English author and politician Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), who wrote, for example, The Haunted and the Haunters: Or, The House and the Brain (1859).

The phrase worm’s-eye view was associated with the cartoonist ‘Rip’ (Roland Hill) in the Sports Argus. A Journal of all Manly Pastimes (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Saturday 11th May 1901:

Rip’s illustrations in the “Evening News” Cricket Annual are funnier than ever. Rip is a great genius; as a cricket cartoonist he is not to be beaten. He is an old friend of mine; he was located in Birmingham at the outset of his career. He hails from Astwood Bank, and his name is Roland Hill. Twelve or fourteen years ago he used to do the cartoons for the “Birmingham Owl,” but I fear that Birmingham people were not at that time educated up to the standard of his drawings. They liked a photographic reproduction better than a drawing in which there was the breath of life. London could appreciate him better, and now he has quite an [sic] unique position. Nothing better than his “Worm Eye Views” have ever appeared.

The following is from The Indian Journal (Eufaula, Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), USA) of Friday 28th November 1902:

The senatorial committee, headed by Senator Beveridge, of Indiana, which came to see if the Territories were ready for statehood, passed through Eufaula Sunday evening about 7 o’clock in a special train. They stopped a few minutes in Eufaula and took supper at the Katy dining hall at Muskogee. They got a good worm’s-eye view of the Indian Territory.

On Friday 26th December 1902, The Leominster News and North Herefordshire & Radnorshire Advertiser (Leominster, Herefordshire, England) mentioned that a song titled From a Worm’s-eye View was sung during the smoking concert following the annual distribution of prizes to the “F” Company, 1st H.R.V.C. (Herefordshire Rifle Volunteer Corps), held at the Corn Exchange, Leominster.

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