By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
We might say that a cliché is a truism plus time. And yet if we grant that the phrase ‘a sight for sore eyes’ is a cliché, we have to ask how such an odd turn of phrase came to be so well-known.
Why should the speaker’s ‘eyes’ be ‘sore’, and how did this phrase come to be universally adopted as an English idiom, and then – in time – a cliché?
Let’s take a closer look at the curious meaning of the phrase, and explore where ‘a sight for sore eyes’ came from.
‘Sight for sore eyes’: phrase meaning
The phrase ‘a sight for sore eyes’ is used to describe something that is welcome; something one is glad to see. This much seems straightforward enough. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘sight for sore eyes’ as ‘a person or thing one is glad to see, esp. a welcome visitor.’
However, one might describe all manner of things as ‘sight for sore eyes’: a hungry person waiting at their restaurant table for their food to arrive may describe the sight of the waiter bringing them their order as a sight for sore eyes; a person who has been separated from their lover for a long period may describe them as a sight for sore eyes.
A ‘sight for sore eyes’, then, is simply someone, or something, you are glad to see.
The phrase has been in widespread use for a while, and has often appeared in works of literature, including classic works of drama and fiction. In his 1932 play Mourning Becomes Electra, for instance, Eugene O’Neill includes the idiom: at one point, Orin says to Vinnie, ‘You certainly are a sight for sore eyes, Vinnie!’
But the ‘sore eyes’ also suggests that a person or thing thus described is especially welcome to someone who is in need of something pleasant after suffering … well, whatever it is that made their eyes sore (crying, perhaps?).
With this in mind, it might be more accurate to say that the idiom describes something or someone that one is relieved to see. The relief is implied by the ‘sore eyes’.
However, a certain amount of poetic licence is doubtless allowed – and must be allowed for – and, even if the idiom was once more narrowly used to mean ‘something one is relieved to see [after some hardship or difficulty or sadness etc.]’, it is now employed in extended use to mean simply ‘something welcome to one’s sight’.
This shift in meaning, if we can describe it as a shift, helps to explain why the ‘sore eyes’ baffle some people when they first hear the phrase, and wonder what is being conveyed. Once the meaning is established, it’s easy to gloss over the strangeness of the idiom upon subsequent hearings.
‘Sight for sore eyes’: phrase origin
How old is the phrase, and where – and when – did it originate? The OED cites the Romantic-era critic William Hazlitt, writing in the New Monthly Magazine in 1826: ‘[David] Garrick’s name was […] proposed […] on condition he should act in tragedy and comedy. […] What a sight for sore eyes that would be!’
This is the earliest known instance of the phrase using the exact words ‘a sight for sore eyes’, although if we go back almost a century, to the 1730s, we find that the phrase was already in existence, albeit with slightly different wording, when Jonathan Swift published his Polite Conversation.
In this 1738 work, Swift includes the line: ‘My Lord, methinks the Sight of you is good for sore Eyes’. This suggests that the idiom was already in existence. Polite Conversation, which comprises three satirical dialogues (which take place at breakfast, dinner, and tea, respectively) is littered with eighteenth-century slang, colloquialisms, catchphrases, and cliches which were in common use at the time.
It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that Swift was no fan of new-fangled words, and once predicted that the word ‘mob’ would never catch on (although he was right about a number of other words he mentioned).
Sadly, the trail appears to go cold after – or rather before – Jonathan Swift in 1738. So we don’t know whether ‘a sight for sore eyes’ began its life in some poem that has long since passed into obscurity and even oblivion, whether it originated as slang, or whether it did indeed initially refer more narrowly to ‘someone or something one feels great relief at seeing’.
What we can say is that, because ‘a sight for sore eyes’ has been a cliché for so long – perhaps even since Swift used it – we are unlikely to find many great poems containing the idiom. When it is used by writers, it tends to be employed in a jocular fashion, or (as in the O’Neill play) as a piece of realistic dialogue.
Nevertheless, it persists in common usage, and makes a memorable appearance at the end of the first Back to the Future film (and at the beginning of the sequel, made four years later, when the addressee of the line, Marty McFly’s girlfriend, definitely was ‘a sight for sore eyes’, having morphed into a completely different person in the interim) and in the 1994 single by Manchester group M People.