In his 1973 book Thick Description
, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz used the example of winking versus twitching to explain what it is that anthropologists should strive to do.
An eye twitch and a wink can look identical. But a wink, Geertz explained, is an intentional signal. "To wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code." A twitch, on the other hand, is not intentional. It's not meant to convey meaning.
The job of the anthropologist, Geertz argued, was not merely to record facts and events (such as that a person's eye moved) but to be able to interpret the cultural meaning of those events. To be able to differentiate a wink from a twitch.
With that in mind, consider this story reported in the Miami Herald
(Apr 30, 1939) about a young man whose eye twitches were constantly misinterpreted:
Some of us wink or blink more than others do. This generally is ascribable to one's physical or nervous condition. Sometimes the winking we cannot control leads to embarrassments. . .
Such a case was reported some years ago by Dr. Francis C. Grant, an eminent neurologist of Philadelphia, Pa. He had a patient—a young man—whose left eye continually winked every time he sat eating at a table.
Whenever this youth dined in a restaurant, his jaws worked sidewise while chewing food. This caused his right jaw muscles to tug at the muscles controlling his left eye, so that every time he chewed his left eye seemed to wink.
Girls believed the youth was flirting with them. They responded, if flirtatious, or, if not, complained to the manager. In either case, the youth was embarrassed by his muscular malady.
Finally, he was compelled to eat alone at home. He was on the verge of becoming a hermit when he decided to consult Dr. Grant. Examination revealed the "short circuit" cause of his strange "jaw wink" and an operation was performed. The muscles, restored to normal action, ended the distressing condition and the youth could eat normally thereafter.
What I find odd is that I came across these two bits of information (first about Geertz, and second about the jaw-winking young man) while reading completely unrelated texts on back-to-back days. A strange coincidence!
You can read more about Geertz's thoughts on winking and twitching here
You can read more about 'jaw winking' (aka Marcus Gunn Syndrome) at rarediseases.org