Usually, it’s difficult to figure out the definition of idiomatic expressions just by looking at the individual words within them. That’s because when the words are taken all together as one phrase, they have a different meaning than they do on their own: Typically, idioms have a figurative rather than literal meaning. For example, when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve done something correctly or exactly right—not physically hit the head of a nail with a hammer. However, the idiom bird’s-eye view actually has a figurative and literal definition. Let’s explore both, as well as its synonyms and other similar expressions. By the end of this article, you should feel, ahem, as free as a bird about using the phrase when speaking and writing.
What Does Bird’s-Eye View Mean—Literally and Figuratively?
Stop to think about it a moment, taking the words as they are and recalling the meanings you know, and you can probably easily determine the literal definition of bird’s-eye view:
A view looking down from high above, like the perspective of a bird in
So often, we wish to be birds, to be able to fly, to see the world from a different, elevated vantage point. Although we can’t actually take to the skies quite like birds do, fortunately, we regularly have the oppotrunity to see things from a bird’s perspective, from a bird’s-eye view—when we’re at the top of a tall building, when we’re riding on a Ferris wheel, when we’re in an airplane, when we’re looking at video footage or a photograph taken from a flying drone, as examples. A bird’s-eye view is commonly used by designers, planners, and architects when drawing up blueprints, as well as in the creation of maps. Bird’s-eye views are regularly used when broadcasting sporting events like football games.
Here are some example sentences using the literal meaning of bird’s-eye view:
- We got a bird’s-eye view of New York City as the plane descended into LaGuardia Airport.
- The architects included a bird’s-eye view of the new building in their plans.
- At the top of the Willis Tower, formerly the Sears Tower, there is a beautiful birds-eye view of Chicago; after all, it’s one of the tallest buildings in the United States.
- The peak of the Eiffel Tower offers a bird’s-eye view of Paris below.
As you can tell from the sentences above, you can use this phrase with several different verbs: You can get a bird’s-eye view, or you can say that there is a bird’s-eye view or that something has/offers a bird’s-eye view.
In classic idiom fashion, it’s more difficult, if not impossible, to determine the other meaning of bird’s-eye view by examining the individual words that comprise it. You simply must know that the phrase can have a figurative meaning and know what that meaning is. Here’s the figurative definition:
An overall (sometimes brief or hasty, sometimes comprehensive) look at something. To look at the big picture; to consider a problem or situation in a broad, sweeping way.
Many times in life, we need to look at something with a wide angle, or we need to provide an overview or survey of something. When we stop a moment and step back and see things from this broad, more distant vantage point, we often change our perspective, figuratively speaking.
Here are some example sentences using the figurative meaning of bird’s-eye view:
- In order to save the struggling small business, the CFO took a bird’s-eye view of the company, looking at each department individually plus how they all worked together.
- At her regular check-in, Mary’s therapist asked for the bird’s-eye view of her week.
- After seeing things from a bird’s-eye view, the mayor of Oakley decided to take a different strategy to address the problem of crime in the city.
- The college’s art history course paints a bird’s-eye view of the topic, covering the span from prehistoric art to contemporary art in just one semester.
In the first three sentences, none of the subjects are actually physically up high and looking down, rather they’re looking at the whole, at the big picture, and are considering their company, their week, their city in a broad sense. As illustrated in the last sentence, when used figuratively to mean an overview, the phrase can convey that the overview is somewhat superficial, or done hastily or quickly. It doesn’t have to, however, and can simply be used to describe a comprehensive overarching view or summary.
Synonyms or Near-Synonyms of Bird’s-Eye View
A variety of words and phrases can be used in place of bird’s-eye view. Some of these are near-synonyms, in that they may not be an exact match or replacement for the phrase but do express a similar sentiment. Below are just a few options. A Google search will turn up additional choices. Or, consult a thesaurus or online dictionary like Merriam-Webster or The Free Dictionary.
Synonyms for the literal meaning:
- Aerial view
- Aerial perspective
- Overhead view
- Top-down perspective
- Panoramic view
Synonyms for the figurative meaning:
- Comprehensive view
- Fly on the wall
- Big picture
- Large picture
- Broad sense
Other Similar Expressions
Have you ever heard of a bird’s-eye shot? The similar phrase is used in photography and in video production and filmmaking to describe a shot looking directly down from above. It is also often called an elevated shot or overhead shot. As you might guess, to get this shot, the camera is held up high or hung at an elevation, approximately at a 90-degree angle above the person, object, or landscape being photographed or filmed. Typically, although overhead, these shots are still somewhat near the person, object, or landscape, in proximity to where a bird would fly, whereas so-called aerial shots are usually from much farther away.
What about the expression a worm’s-eye view? Less commonly used, this phrase is the opposite of bird’s-eye view… in all ways. It can be used to describe a low vantage point, from down below, on the ground, like that of a worm. It can also be used to describe a limited understanding due to a limited perspective. If you look at something from a worm’s-eye view, you don’t look at the big picture or the broad picture, you take a narrow look. For example, if there’s a problem, you don’t look at all the circumstances that might be contributing to that problem, rather only the problem as it is right there in front of you. Yet still, the phrase can be used to describe looking at a situation from a humble position or through the eyes of a person in a humble position. In photography and filmmaking, a worm’s-eye view can show you the underside of an object. It can be used to make a person or building, for instance, look incredibly tall, large, and strong, as opposed to images taken from a bird’s-eye view, which can make a person or building look very small.
The idiom bird’s-eye view can have both a literal and figurative meaning. When used literally, it is describing a view from a great height, looking down, like the view a bird has when in flight. (Of course, we can’t actually know what animals see or if they see the world through the same eyes we do! But, that’s a philosophical debate for another time and place.) When used figuratively, it means to see the big picture, to get or have an overview of a situation, problem, or topic. It can be used positively, to mean getting a broader perspective as to better understand a problem and to change one’s viewpoint, figuratively, for the better. Or, it can be used with a slightly more negative connotation, to mean that an overview or summary has been provided in a cursory or hasty manner. The phrase worm’s-eye view is the antonym of bird’s-eye view. It describes the vantage point of looking up from down below at ground level, as a worm does. It can also be used to describe looking at a situation, problem, or topic at close range rather than in a broad sense, or from a humble position or perspective.