“Your gorilla hearts are made of ice, Ivan,” she said, her eyes glittering.

I read this sentence in The One and Only Ivan which is a children's book.

According to Google dictionary, glitter in this context means that shine with a bright, shimmering reflected light.

But I found these words mean almost the same:

  • shine
  • sparkle
  • twinkle
  • glint
  • gleam
  • shimmer
  • glimmer

How to differentiate the subtle differences among these glittering words?

Do I have to memorize the meaning of every word? Is there a better way?

Thank you!

  • I'm not sure that I agree with Oxford's use of shimmering here; I prefer Cambridge's definition to shine with little, bright flashes of reflected light. Shimmering is a soft reflected light, like satin or a calm sea on a fine evening. Commented Mar 23, 2022 at 13:59
  • "Shine", "Shimmer", "glimmer" etc. are not vocabularies. They are words. A vocabulary is the collection of all the words that a person knows. You can say "Joe has a large vocabulary". It means "Joe knows lots of words"
    – James K
    Commented Mar 23, 2022 at 17:38
  • 1
    @JamesK Thanks for correcting.
    – hustnzj
    Commented Mar 23, 2022 at 22:11

1 Answer 1


As a native speaker of English, I could barely distinguish the meanings of those words. For instance, I could suggest:

  • gleam has a sense of a diffuse light, like light through frosted glass
  • twinkle has a sense that the light is constantly varying slightly (like stars)
  • glint has a sense that light briefly bounced off the object, but is not constant. Metaphorically it often seems to mean an idea expressed in someone's eyes.
  • sparkle if the light is particularly bright, with a sense of movement and a very specific point (like Christmas tree lights), often has a metaphorical sense of cheeriness
  • shimmer often seems to have a sense of a broad areas of light moving across a surface, like moonlight catching waves on a lake
  • glimmer? no idea, much the same as "gleam" to me.
  • glitter sounds archaic to me as a verb, for me it's tiny pieces of foil that stick to you

I don't know a better way than reading a lot, to be honest. Most of the associations and understanding I have of these words are just from reading them in books and hearing them in songs. The words that I would actually use, with distinct meanings, in my day to day life are probably "shine", "sparkle", "glint" (particularly describing light catching a piece of metal in a way that catches your eye) and maybe "shimmer".

Do I have to memorize the meaning of every word?

Depends on your goals, I suppose. In terms of passive understanding, I don't think you're missing much by treating them all as "light catching an object".

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