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?