A sight for sore eyes? For Yanks, yes; for Brits, no – or maybe

Watching the Jubilee flotilla on telly this morning, I was struck by a BBC commentator’s strange choice of words as he described the picturesque and colorful scene of hundreds of ships sailing up the Thames. He declared this picture of British idyll to be “a sight for sore eyes”. I did a double-take. In fact, I grabbed my remote and hit rewind, wondering if I had misheard him. Could he have been referring to an unfortunate downpour of rain? Was he being strangely ironic? His words rang out clear as the sky trying to break through the rainclouds above the grand nautical procession.

Had I really been that mistaken, not taking this poetic compliment at its face value (its logic does suggest a happy sight) but wrongly assuming it had been an insult for all these years? Something told me it must be one of those British-American disconnects, and that the Americans are perhaps more literal in their interpretation of the phrase. Sure enough, two online dictionaries confirmed my suspicions: the Macmillan Dictionary gives two definitions for “a sight for sore eyes”: 1) someone or something that you are very pleased to see; 2) (British) something that is strange or unpleasant to look at; the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English concurs, also giving two opposite meanings: a) someone or something that you feel very happy to see; b) (British English) someone or something that is very unattractive or very funny to look at.

Yet this morning’s commentator for BBC America spoke with what can only be described as a true-blue BBC British accent, with not a twang or whiff of American behind his home-county vowels. Has the expression lost its curiously illogical British sense through either misuse or misunderstanding? Can anyone explain the origin of the British-English topsy-turvy interpretation of this rather lovely but ambiguous phrase?

 

4 thoughts on “A sight for sore eyes? For Yanks, yes; for Brits, no – or maybe

  1. Barrie England

    The OED gives only the positive definition, and I must say it has never occurred to me that it can mean anything else: ‘a person or thing one is glad to see, especially a welcome visitor.’ The earliest citation is from Hazlitt in 1826. The implication is presumably that the sight on offer would be sufficiently attractive to relieve a visual affliction.

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  2. Louise Post author

    It’s funny: I have only ever understood it as something negative. The fact that both Macmillan and Longman list the second (negative) definition suggests that it must be more than just a mistake or misunderstanding on my part: some ambiguity must have crept in at some point – at least colloquially …

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  3. Brian Barder

    I’m with Barrie on this. I’ve never seen the phrase used with a negative connotation: always something delightful to see, although in the case of the royal flotilla the sore eyes seem quite meaningless and the whole phrase is such a dead cliché that it ought to be pensioned off, especially now we know that it’s deeply ambiguous in any case.

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  4. Brian Barder

    Less easily forgiven, in the BBC’s commentary on the Diamond Jubilee flotilla on the Thames earlier today was the reference to The Queen as “Her Royal Highness”! On this day of all days our head of state is surely entitled to Her Majesty.

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