February 16, 2017 - While down town the other day I met a friend whom I had not seen for several years. We stopped to visit and I commented “My, you are a sight for sore eyes!” We both immediately knew what I meant by that comment – I was pleased to see my friend.
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Later I began to consider the saying and just what it really meant. Several questions came to my mind – can one have sore eyes, or can just the sight of some one or some thing be good for sore eyes? Or, does it actually mean the opposite, that is, seeing some one will cause you to have sore eyes? A little research did not help very much.
It seems the idiom “a sight for sore eyes” means a welcome and pleasant event, and dates back to at least the 1700s. I believe the saying makes more sense to us today when we understand that the word “sore” back in the 1700s refered to being tense, fearful, worried, or sorrowful. This meaning in modern day English is no longer used, however back in the time of the King James Bible, it was a commonly accepted usage.
Since the King James Bible was one of the earliest official translations of the Bible into English, it can be assumed that many of the word usages in the Bible reflected common usage since the intent was to make the Bible accessible for all people. During this period, many people wrote and spoke of things like being “sore afraid” for “extremely afraid”.
In this sense of “sore”, a sight for sore eyes would be something which brings about relief from tension or fear. The Irish writer, Jonathan Swift, appears to have been the first person to use the term in print in 1738 when he penned “the sight of you is good for sore eyes”. His casual use of the phrase suggests that it was probably a well known phrase in England at that time.
Over the years, Swift’s words have been shortened with most speakers redacting the “good for” and turning the saying into “a sight for sore eyes”, with the meaning remaining the same.As I mentioned earlier, some people use the term in the negative, suggesting that the sight in question actually brings about sore or painful eyes. However, it is noted that the good usage pre-dates the bad.
Optometrists who have co-opted the term may not be aware that the eyes in question are sore in the sense of fearful, rather than sore in the sense of painful.
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I think we all agree that meeting some people will be a pleasant experience for your eyes, whereas some people may generate a pain in the remainder of your body. We should all strive to be the pleasant experience for our friends’ eyes, and all their other body parts, and not the pain.