What Does Out of Sight Out of Mind Mean?

Have you ever heard or read the phrase out of sight, out of mind and wondered what it meant? Scroll down now—before the article is, well, out of sight, out of mind—to discover the definition of this popular proverbial and idiomatic expression.

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What Does Out of Sight Out of Mind Mean?

This common phrase is used to say that we tend to forget about or dismiss what’s outside of our immediate view—be it a person or a thing. In other words, if we don’t see someone or something for a period of time, we might stop thinking about them or it, or regard the absent person or thing as less important than what or who is present and visible to us.

Here are some example sentences using the saying out of sight, out of mind to help you better understand its meaning:

  • My old friends promised they’d call me every day after I moved away, and that we’d stay as close as ever. But it’s been a few months since I left, and I haven’t heard from them at all. I guess it’s true when they say out of sight, out of mind.
  • I had company coming over and needed to clean the house quickly, so I put all of my mail in a drawer in the kitchen. That meant my bills were out of sight, out of mind, so I completely forgot to pay them this month. 
  • With our house, it’s out of sight, out of mind for our landlord, who lives in another town. There are so many things that need to be repaired, but since he’s far away and busy with other rentals in his city, our place just isn’t prioritized. 
  • When I told her I had to transfer colleges, my girlfriend said she wanted to continue our relationship long distance. I was scared, since people always say out of sight, out of mind. But she assured me she could never forget me. 
  • It can be easy for people to have an out of sight, out of mind attitude about the pandemic. If they don’t know anyone that’s affected and there aren’t many cases in their community, they can almost forget about it altogether. Unfortunately, this outlook might mean they don’t take all the appropriate safety measures.

The idiom is most often punctuated with a comma after sight

The Origin of the Expression

Out of sight, out of mind dates all the way back to ancient Greece. Specifically, to the epic Greek poem the Odyssey, which usually carries an attribution to Homer and likely dates to the late 7th century or early 8th century BC. The poem is separated into 24 books that tell the story of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and his trek home after the Trojan War. It was originally composed in Homeric Greek. An English translation of the section that includes the proverb reads:

“He’s lost and gone now—out of sight, out of mind—and I … 
he’s left me tears and grief. Nor do I rack my heart 
and grieve for him alone. No longer. Now the gods 
have invented other miseries to plague me.” 

Of course, the original Homeric Greek version might not have included the phrase exactly as we use it today, rather merely the idea it expresses. Language historians suggest the earliest appearance of the proverb in English is sometime in the 1500s. Most likely it was first printed in English in John Heywood’s A Dialogue Conteinyng the Nomber in Effect of All the Prouerbes in the Englishe Tongue, published in the late 1540s.

Understanding Idioms and Proverbs

Out of sight, out of mind is both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is a figurative expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t be understood, or at least fully understood, just by looking at the individual words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. If you were to consult an idioms dictionary, here are a few of the most common idioms you’d find:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Take out of sight, out of mind literally, and you might find yourself a bit confused. After all, you may associate the idea of being “out of mind” with being “crazy.” But you now know that in the case of this expression, “out of mind” means “forgotten.” You might also take “out of sight” to mean “blind,” as opposed to someone or something being “outside of one’s direct view.” As an idiom, the phrase means that if we don’t see a person or thing for some time, we tend to stop thinking about them or it at all—or as much as we once did—and start to turn our thoughts toward what or who we can see.

The well-known expression is also a proverb. A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:

Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

You’ve certainly also seen or heard a popular proverb that’s an antonym to out of sight, out of mind: absence makes the heart grow fonder. This expression means that when you spend time away and apart from someone or something, you really miss them/it and love them/it, perhaps more than you would if you were with them or it all the time. Now, you might be asking, how can both proverbs be true? While proverbs offer up a bit of general advice and wisdom, they may not be true for everyone in every single circumstance. There may be those who are quick to forget someone that’s out of sight, just as there may be people who find they think of and love someone more when they’re away. Which is most often the case for you: out of sight, out of mind or absence makes the heart grow fonder?!

Summary

The expression out of sight, out of mind means that we forget what we can’t see; that we tend to stop thinking about someone or something when they’re/it’s out of our view for a period of time—or at least we stop thinking about it/them as much as we used to in favor of the people and things that are immediately in front of us. In other words, what is out of sight becomes less important than what is within sight.