Q From Pete White: My wife’s grandmother used to say someone was out like Lottie’s eye when they were dead asleep, or perhaps passed out drunk. I have heard that Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde once famously used the phrase, but nobody seems to be able to tell me where it came from, or who Lottie is.
A It was actually Clyde Barrow who used the expression, according to most accounts, including this one:
Clyde made the choice to run for freedom. He never deceived himself about the ultimate outcome, however, and later told his sister Nell, “I’m just going on ’til they get me. Then I’m out like Lottie’s eye.”
The Lives and Times of Bonnie & Clyde, by E R Milner, 1996. Here Clyde clearly means death rather than some temporary unconsciousness.
Both Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were from Texas and I wondered if your wife’s grandmother might also be from there (though you have since told me she isn’t). That’s because the earliest examples that I know about are all from that state. None, alas, give any clue as to who Lottie might have been, or why her eye should have become significant.
There are theories, of course. Lot’s wife from the Bible has been mentioned, though her story hardly matches. A speakeasy in Chicago called “Lottie’s Pub” has been mentioned, because it supposedly turned a blind eye to what was going on inside. This doesn’t fit the early history and seems to be no more than the usual kind of folk invention. In her book To Wed a Texan, Georgina Gentry suggests that Lottie Deno had been “a legendary saloon girl who lost an eye in a brawl”; perhaps she’s confusing the lady with the Lottie Deno who was a famous professional gambler in Texas after the Civil War, but I can’t find she ever lost an eye.
One writer has asserted that the idiom has a very long history, back into colonial times, but that is extremely doubtful. The first example I’ve been able to turn up is this:
Times when I thought my luck had went out like Lottie’s eye. But it don’t do to give up.
The Wind, by Dorothy Scarborough, 1925. Her writings are particularly associated with Texas, continuing the links with that state.
Here’s one from a little later:
The cat is out of the bag! The deep, dark mystery is solved! The truth is out — out like Lottie’s eye, for like somebody or other said “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”.
The Morning Avalanche (Lubbock, Texas), 28 Jul. 1931. It’s clear from the writer’s play on the expression that it was one he expected his readers to know.
A faint possible hint comes from an article by James H Warner, A Word List from Southeast Arkansas, which appeared in the language journal American Speech in 1938. He included go out like Lottie’s eye but defined it as running very fast and added the illustrative sentence, “That horse is going out like Lottie’s eye.” Might Lottie have been a racehorse?