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Hairy eyeballs

Q: From Elizabeth Ullman: In a book by Cory Doctorow, I found a reference to somebody giving the hairy eyeball to another person. This is a weird thing to do. What does it mean and where does it come from?

A Put simply, to give somebody the hairy eyeball is to stare at them in an angry or disapproving manner. Perhaps this was the example you read:

The shantytowners were used to tourists in their midst. A few yardies gave them the hairy eyeball, but then they saw Perry was along and they found something else to pay attention to.

Makers, by Cory Doctorow, 2010.

To eyeball somebody, without mention of hair, is an older American term meaning no more than to look at something, though it can imply doing so appraisingly — to take its measure. This is the earliest example so far unearthed:

   He straightened up, holding in his right hand, by its long locks, a dead head depending therefrom. Taking it gingerly, the Captain set it on the table directly before Mr. Marshall East, and arranged it squarely. ... “God!” burst from the lips of the man as he eyeballed his attendant.
   “Oh — well — you recognise him then.”

Natchez’s Pass, by Frederic Remington, in Harper’s Magazine, Feb. 1901.

It can also mean to stare at somebody, particularly from a short distance away in an intimidating or disapproving manner. Hairy eyeball begins to show up in print in the early 1960s as an extension of this idea, though the saying is almost certainly older. Its first appearance, in a widely syndicated press interview with the American actress and comedian Carol Burnett, is intriguing because it has a very different sense to the current one:

With her [Carol Burnett’s sister] everything is boys-boys-boys. She’s really educated me. She was telling me about a boy looking at her and she said, “He gave me the hairy eyeball.” That meant he liked her. But if she didn’t like the boy she would say, “Oh, what a twitch!”

Galveston Daily News (Texas), 7 Nov. 1961.

This might seem to have been a short-lived meaning, as two years later the New York Times Magazine stated firmly that to give the hairy eyeball “means that somebody was disapproving.” However, in 1972, Zoe Brockman wrote in the Gastonia Gazette of North Carolina that she had just discovered this new expression and found that it meant girls fluttering their eyelashes at boys. To her way of thinking, flirting “sounds a lot better than this hairy eyeball bit.” Her view was presumably shared, as this meaning died out in favour of the disapproving one.

It seems highly plausible that eyelashes are the basis of the idiom. They may have originally fluttered, but in the standard sense it instead means looking with narrowed eyes through the lashes in displeasure or dislike.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Sep. 2015
Last updated: 6 Sep. 2015

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-hai5.htm
Last modified: 6 September 2015.