It is with a heavy heart that I pass on this link, in which Anne Curzan reports that many of her students think “a sight for sore eyes” is a negative expression:

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. […]
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.

She is, of course, absolutely correct, and the descriptivist half of me nods vigorously in agreement. The other half is running around in circles bellowing in fear and loathing, but I know from experience that after a while it will run out of energy, lie down and pant a while, and then get on with life, wincing only occasionally.


  1. So it goes.
    I Danish “A bear’s favour” used to refer to the fable by La Fontaine about a dancing bear that tried to please his master by waving away a fly his face. As a result he killed the man.
    Now it’s (supposedly) been reïnterpreted to mean something like “a bear of a favour” – a very big favour.

  2. “First, idioms don’t have to make sense. ”
    In fact they can have the exact opposite of the sense of the constituent words, eg. “quite a few”.

  3. On the other hand, it’s hard to interpret медвежья услуга (a bear’s favor, probably from the same La Fontaine fable) as a very big favor in Russian, so its meaning remains, more or less, a disservice (not necessarily with good intentions). Nor has it been connected to the stock market, although I have been talking to its practitioners for years.

  4. I have those two halves, too, and I also have a third half that is saying “I never thought that idiom made sense in the first place: if your eyes are sore, a pleasant sight isn’t going to help with that, is it?”.

  5. Also, one supposes that ‘head over heels’ means ‘heels over head,’ but it’s an odd way of saying so.

  6. Careful you don’t turn into a terrorist, MattF. One of the clues that helped identify the Unabomber was his pedantic use of “eat your cake and have it too” instead of the usual illogical “have your cake and eat it too”. I don’t recall whether he also wrote “heels over head” or “put on your socks and shoes”.

  7. I’m not that pessimistic here, or at least i don’t think i’ve ever heard the phrase misused (I could google-research this, I suppose. But she could have too.) It’s perfectly possible she’s not looking at a change in the meaning of the phrase, instead students generally pick up the correct meaning later than she’d expect. After all, her fifteen-year-olds (and probably some of her undergraduates, too) are only just starting to read and understand adult-level texts, there’s probably dozens of idioms that they all guess at until they come across them in a context where the intention is clear.

  8. Jeffry House says:

    I always though that the “sore eyes” refer to eyes rubbed from crying, waiting for the sailor who might be lost at sea.

  9. dearieme says:

    How many of them think it’s “a site for sore eyes”?

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Those students probably think that “a sight for sore eyes” means the same as “an eyesore”.

  11. Perhaps the “sight for sore eyes” phrase has been used so often ironically that now the phrase has shifted towards being a negative one?

  12. Jeffry House says:

    Maybe they think it is the same as “psoriasis”.

  13. mollymooly says:

    @Jim: the difference between “few/little” and “a few/a little” is in the article, not any particular idiom. “Quite” has the same difference all on its own.
    @also: Google suggests not all instances of “a sight for saw eyes” are intentional puns.

  14. marie-lucie says:

    Is the phrase “sore eyes” used much outside of “a sight for sore eyes”? Do people say “I have sore eyes” or even “my eyes are sore” rather than “my eyes hurt”? I can’t remember if I have heard this or not.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Is “sight for sore eyes” really a high-falutin’ idiom you don’t pick up without reading grown-up books? I may be misgeneralizing from the fact that there’s an Aerosmith song by that title which was reasonably well known in my cohort of white suburban U.S. males who were in junior high school in the late ’70’s, whether or not bookish.

  16. dearieme says:

    “my eyes are sore” rather than “my eyes hurt” would be common in Scots English, or “I’ve got sore eyes”.
    What do youngsters think is the meaning of “Ma, he’s making eyes at me”?

  17. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: Is “sight for sore eyes” really a high-falutin’ idiom you don’t pick up without reading grown-up books?
    I would not consider this “a high-falutin’ idiom” at all. I think I have encountered it in British books, in the speech of uneducated characters. It is the title of a Ruth Rendell mystery, which I don’t think I have read. RR’s characters are drawn from a wide range of social backgrounds.

  18. What a beautiful, witty final paragraph in that post, LH. It captures my own ambivalence about language change so well.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    I agree with GT.

  20. dearieme says:

    Long ago a friend and colleague, a senior secretary, asked me my views on a junior typist she’d just hired. I replied “She’s got bedroom eyes.” My pal giggled at such archaic slang. The youngster cut a swathe through the staff with one young man even resigning his job, heartbroken.
    Old slang has virtues beyond its poetic qualities.

  21. Adelfons says:

    A funny misused idiom is “salt of the earth.” Is it only in the US that it’s most often used to mean simple, common and decent?

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    You mean “Salt of the Earth” in the sense of the lyrics to the Jagger/Richards song? (Not American, unless they were affecting an Americanism, of course.)

  23. I agree with GT.

  24. Marie-Lucie says:
    Do people say “I have sore eyes” or even “my eyes are sore” rather than “my eyes hurt”?
    Both of the last two get about 600 kilo-Google-hits. “I have sore eyes” is considerably rarer with only 180 KGh.
    The central meaning of salt of the earth is excellence or worth. Sometimes this means aristocratic excellence, as in this OED quotation:

    1842 Literary Gaz. 28 May 371/3 To dine like queens, kings, princes, potentates, and the other ‘salt of the earth’.

    But the values can also be demotic ones (the apostles, after all, who are being addressed, were demotic if anyone was):

    1953 P. G. Wodehouse Performing Flea 78 You dine with the President on Monday, and he slaps you on the back and tells you you are the salt of the earth, and on Tuesday morning you get a letter from him saying you are fired.’

    (Granted, I suppose the speaker is American here even though the author is British.)
    And sometimes no particular class is implied:

    1931 T. R. G. Lyell Slang 659 If he’s a friend of yours, you’re a lucky man, for if ever a fellow was one of the salt of the earth, he is. He’s the best man I’ve ever met, in every way.

    The first record of its use (outside the OE gospels) is in Chaucer’s “Summoner’s Tale”, lines 383-98 (punctuated modernwise):
         “Now, maister,” quod this lord, “I yow biseke [beseech] …”
         “No maister, sire,” quod he, “but servitour,
         Thogh I have had in scole that honour.
         God liketh nat that — ‘raby [rabbi, master; cf. Luke 6:46 (Tyndale)]’ — men us calle,
         Neither in market ne in youre large halle.”
         “No fors [no force = no matter]”, quod he [the lord], “but tel me al youre grief.”
         “Sire,” quod this frere, “and [an] odious meschief
         This day bityd [occurred] is to myn ordre and me,
         And so, per consequens, to ech degree
         Of hooly chirche, God amende it soone!”
         “Sire”, quod the lord, “ye woot [know] what is to doone [be done].
         Distempre yow noght, ye be my confessour;
         Ye been the salt of the erthe and the savour.
         For goddes love, youre pacience ye holde!
         Tel me youre grief”; and anon [at once] hym tolde,
         As ye han herd biforn [have heard before], ye woot [know] wel what.
    In this passage, though the lord addresses the friar with the terms of respect “master” and “sir”, the friar disclaims it: no master he, he says, but a servant. Nevertheless, the lord then praises the friar by calling him the salt of the earth: even if he is not upper-class, he is still what the Hopi call a valuable man.
    Gale says that for her the phrase is associated with “down to earth”, i.e. accessible to others.
    J. W. Brewer: I suppose you mean “not specifically American”?

  25. Is an eyesore a site for sore eyes?

  26. AJP – no, the eyesore was the site where Esau was sitting on the seesaw.

  27. Irish indie pop band Hal has a song called “My eyes are sore” off their rather good eponymous 2005 album.
    The lyrics (in their entirety below) seem to indicate the phrase is being used in a rather prosaic way: the eyes are sore from crying.
    My eyes are sore
    Too many tears gone and fall over you my girl
    And happiness isn’t for sure
    Once you get what you’re looking for
    Hang on (you feel like this)
    What’s wrong? (we feel like this)
    Sometimes life gets you down
    You don’t know where to run
    That’s why you hide your face
    And the way I feel (if you felt like this)
    You’d be better and see in the way that I feel

  28. marie-lucie says:

    Is an eyesore a site for sore eyes?
    No, an eyesore is something so ugly it figuratively hurts the eyes (usually it is a place, like a garbage dump or decrepit house, which clashes with the rest of the neighbourhood), but a site for sore eyes would be a place so beautiful it could heal sore eyes.
    But I agree with dearieme above that the students mentioned above probably think of “a site for sore eyes” = a place causing sore eyes, synonymous with an eyesore.

  29. A pharmacy is a site for sore eyes, then.
    Zyth, I hadn’t heard that one for some time. Does it continue or is that it? I’ve forgotten.

  30. I don’t know that I agree with Curzan’s explanation of “how younger speakers got to this meaning.” These speakers might very well be reinterpreting the meaning of the for, but I doubt that’s driving the change. Personally, I strongly associate the idiom with a situation in which someone thought to have met a tragic end unexpectedly turns up again, bedraggled/battered/etc. but alive. It’s easy to imagine a path from there to a word that simply means bedraggled/battered/etc., especially for people who only encounter it passively in books. So I am on board with Eel, and as Marie-Lucie points out “Eyesore” is probably interfering too.

  31. marie-lucie says:

    Matt: a word that simply means bedraggled/battered/etc., especially for people who only encounter it passively in books.
    I think I have only encountered the phrase in books, as I mentioned above. At first I was puzzled about what it meant, but after several instances in different contexts I realized that it was positive. For instance, a man having gone through several annoying or upsetting experiences during a day or more telling a waitress in a bar “You’re a sight for sore eyes” – meaning not just that she is pretty but even more that the sight of her smiling, friendly face makes him feel better. If anyone was bedraggled, etc, it would be the man using the phrase, after being rescued, etc.

  32. Clearly it depends on reading material! If you told me a fictional character had said it in a bar, I would probably guess that a sarcastic waitress had said it to a private eye who turned up late one night with a black eye and split lip.

  33. marie-lucie says:

    Matt, anything positive can be said sarcastically to mean the opposite, but that does not mean that it cannot be said in good faith.

  34. Since you don’t generally hear phrases in a vacuum, the question becomes, in what context have the young’uns heard it that could be construed as a negative. I mean to say, this seems a pretty swift 180 for a phrase pushing nearly three hundred years. (Or are there earlier instances of it intended as negative?)
    (Myself, I use peruse in the sense of to read carefully, which I suppose I will have to give up.)

  35. Update – I just quizzed the 12 year old on this phrase. She was not familiar with it and assumed it meant the speaker thought the addressee ugly.
    I think the 12 year old needs to read more, or at least spend more time with her southern relatives.

  36. Yes, I too have southern relatives from whom I may have picked it up. Interesting; never thought of that possibility.

  37. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t have any Southern (or Northern) US relatives, and I am sure the books where I learned the phrase were not written by Southern writers.

  38. Of course it’s not exclusively southern, but I suspect it’s more alive on the lips of southerners than elsewhere, like many other sort-of-literary turns of phrase. The South is famously fond of elaborate rhetoric.

  39. Matt, anything positive can be said sarcastically to mean the opposite, but that does not mean that it cannot be said in good faith.
    Well, yes, obviously. I’m not saying that the phrase can’t be used sincerely, and that Curzon’s friend is the one who has it all wrong (man). I’m arguing that since it has become so closely associated with a certain context in which it is used semi-ironically and/or sarcastically, it’s quite conceivable that a person could grow up with a skewed understanding of what the phrase “really” means. And I think that this is far more likely than a generation spontaneously deciding to reinterpret a particular usage of the word “for” in a less natural way.
    (If your argument is that the phrase isn’t closely associated with that sort of usage, that people are just as likely to use it sincerely with no strings attached, then fair enough — I could very well be wrong there. I don’t have corpus evidence, just a subjective impression based on my own idiolect [no way I would ever non-ironically call someone a “sight for sore eyes”, any more than I would say that they “look[ed] like a million bucks”] and excessive youthful intake of pulp fiction featuring cliched dialogue like “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!”.)

  40. marie-lucie says:

    Matt, I don’t read much fiction, let alone pulp fiction (unless you consider detective stories pulp fiction, but I am choosy about who I read within that context, and I usually prefer British writers). As I remember, some contexts for the phrase may have been ironical (eg someone knowingly using a clichéd phrase for humorous effect), but not sarcastic. It is quite possible that the phrase has become more negative in North America than elsewhere.

  41. Victor Sonkin says:

    ‘Pride of place’ obviously means ‘place of pride’.

  42. I had never even supposed that this expression could have a negative meaning. I have always been a voracious reader (anything and everything, including a lot of popular stuff [what the Germans call Trivialliteratur]) and if asked to explain what this expression means, I would probably come up with: “Gosh, you look marvelous!” or something like that.

  43. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh says:

    Because that’s what it fucking well means!!

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