Sight for Sore Eyes

ted_Eyes_bloodshotWhen I stopped by a friend’s office the other day, he said, “Well, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes?” I responded, “I trust you mean that in the positive sense!” And he looked at me like I was from Mars. “What other sense is there?” he asked.

There is another sense, which came to my attention three years ago when a student confessed, in class, that she had been using the phrase “wrong” her whole life.  She explained that she had just recently learned that a sight for sore eyes was a good thing. I immediately polled the class, and it turned out that she was far from alone: at least a quarter of the other students thought a sight for sore eyes was a bad thing: a thing that makes the eyes sore. An eyesore.

I have polled several classes since. In each, while more than half the undergraduates welcome a sight for sore eyes, a significant percentage uses the phrase to refer to something (or someone) that is a mess, ugly, disgusting, or otherwise capable of making the eyes unhappy. I recently asked some folks under 15, and, while I will admit there were only six of them, all six of them believed “sight for sore eyes” was negative, not in any way a compliment or a welcome sight.

The phrase goes back to Jonathan Swift, who didn’t write the actual phrase but came close in A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738): “The sight of you is good for sore eyes.” The Oxford English Dictionary dates the phrase “a sight for sore eyes” to 1826. Almost two hundred years later, its meaning seems to be turning on its head for at least some speakers.

When I’ve told people about this change in meaning for the idiom, the most common reaction has been: “But that doesn’t make any sense.” And with this comment, they dismiss younger speakers’ reinterpretation of the idiom.

I would not be so quick to dismiss it. First, idioms don’t have to make sense. By definition, idioms have a distinctive meaning that cannot be inferred solely from the meanings of the words in the expression. Think about “a can of worms” or “beat around the bush”—the latter of which has shifted semantically from its origin: beating around the bush was how hunters got the birds to fly out, which was the goal; the goal was not to beat the bush itself (in other words, beating around the bush was a preliminary activity, not an avoidance strategy).

Second, it is easy to see how younger speakers got to this meaning—that is, I’m not sure it “makes no sense.” They are just reinterpreting how the word “for” functions in the phrase: it is a sight that creates sore eyes, just as a phrase like “a pen for calligraphy” is a pen that is used to create calligraphy.

If this semantic reversal feels too radical to stick, consider the word “peruse,” which has gone from meaning “to read carefully or pore over” to meaning “skim or browse” within the past few decades. Words and phrases shift meaning all the time, sometimes even coming to mean their opposite, and sometimes conveying opposing meanings depending on context (as in “sanction” or “dust”). As a historian of the language, I am mindful of the fact that what strikes older speakers as illogical and absurd right now will in all likelihood seem more interesting than nonsensical in retrospect.

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