Famous Sayings: #39 — ‘A Sight for Sore Eyes’

December 4, 2016

My, aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!


International Mag Jonathan Swift
Jonathan Swift

Well, this might be the simple search I had to do for this feature.

When looking up the origins for this phrase, I only needed to consult a total of four — nay, five — sources. Three of the sources I visited added some context to the history of the idiom “sight for sore eyes.” The other source went over the meaning of the phrase, and I found an online scan of a source for more context.

What Is the Origin of the Idiom?

I first visited The Phrase Finder once again and the article there was pretty straightforward. It turns out the idiom was first recorded in some form by Jonathan Swift, although it had to be in use for a time prior. The Irish writer wrote A Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation, which was published in 1738.

Here is the line in question:

… the sight of you is good for sore eyes …

More about that in a minute.

Gary Martin (at The Phrase Finder) continues to say the idiom has hanged over the years. The form of the idiom as we know it was first recorded by William Hazlitt, in New Monthly Magazine (1826). The snippet from Martin was truncated, so I found a scan via Google Books, according to a specific search:

Garrick’s name was received with the greatest enthusiasm, who was proposed by J.F—. He presently superseded both Hogath and Handel, who had been talked of, but then it was on condition he should act in tragedy and comedy, in the play and the farce, Lear and Wildair and Abel Drugger. What a sight for sore eyes that would be!

Did ‘a Sight for Sore Eyes’ Originally Have a Different Meaning?

An article on wiseGEEK stressed that the word “sore” was given a different meaning with during Swift’s time. In this case, the word referred “to being tense, fearful, worried, or sorrowful.” This meaning was commonly accepted during the time of the King James Bible.

It could be assumed that the King James Bible used a dialect that was common at the time.

Examples: “sore afraid,” would be used to say “extremely afraid.”

Thus, the “a sight for sore eyes” would bring relief to a person who was tense and/or afraid.

However, when I consulted a scan of Swift’s 1738 play, it seems that the usage of “sore” was quite similar to the way it was used today.

In one scene, Lady Smart (the wife of Lord Smart) and her guests are having tea in her antechamber. They are visited by the Colonel, Lord Sparkish, and Tom Neverout. It would seem that the Colonel was flirting with Miss Notable, who wasn’t very comfortable with his advances.

Lady Smart speaks up and says something flattering to Lord Sparkish, while lamenting that he showed up unannounced. Here’s the full line:

My Lord, methinks the Sight of you is good for sore Eyes ; if we had known of your Coming, we would have strown rushes at you : How has your Lordship done this long time ?

In this case, “sore” might have meant “fearful or tense,” and that would make sense. Certainly, it would be improper for Lady Smart to flirt with Lord Sparkish, but it wouldn’t necessarily be rude to call another man handsome.

By the Way, What Are Rushes?

In medieval times, strewn rushes might have been in reference to woven mats.

According to a post on C.M. Stone’s blog (which was written earlier this year), herbs would be placed on top of mats. When stepped on, the scent of the herbs (rushes, which look like grasses) would be released. Mats were replaced eventually so that fresh herbs were always used.

Is the Idiom’s Connotation Positive or Negative?

Most of the time, “a sight for sore eyes” has a positive connotation.

Martin’s definition alludes to a person or thing someone (else) is happy to see.

The Cambridge English Dictionary shares two definitions.

The British definition:


a way of saying that you are very pleased to see someone or that you think someone is very attractive:

You’re a sight for sore eyes!

The American Definition:

someone or something that you are happy to see:

After twenty hours of driving, my family was a sight for sore eyes.

Anne Curzan offered a different take. She talks about how the idiom “a sight for sore eyes” has shifted in meaning for a sizeable minority of the people she’s talked to. In talking to undergraduates, she found that while most agree the idiom has a positive connotation, it has a negative connotation for others.

The wiseGEEK article said, “a sight for sore eyes” means “a welcome and pleasant event.” This article also mentions that some people focus on possible negative connotations of the phrase.

Works Cited

“a sight for sore eyes.” Cambridge English Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 4 Dec 2016. <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/a-sight-for-sore-eyes>.

Curzan, Anne. “Sight for Sore Eyes.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 18 June 2013. Web. Retrieved 4 Dec 2016. <http://www.chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/06/18/sight-for-sore-eyes/>.

Martin, Gary. “A sight for sore eyes.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 4 Dec 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-sight-for-sore-eyes.html>.

Stone, C.M. “Historical Inaccuracy: Rushes strewn on the floor.” C.M Stone. 20 May 2016. Web. Retrieved 4 Dec 2016. <https://ceeemstone.com/2016/05/20/historical-inaccuracy-rushes-strewn-on-the-floor/>.

“What are the Origins of the Phrase ‘a sight for Sore Eyes’?” wiseGEEK. Web. Retrieved 4 Dec 2016. <http://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-the-origins-of-the-phrase-a-sight-for-sore-eyes.htm>.

9 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #39 — ‘A Sight for Sore Eyes’

    1. I’m glad you approve. I do my best to find credible sources, and use more than 1 or 2. Sometimes, the third or fourth source, or so on will have incredible insights that put a new perspective on a famous saying.


  1. Yikes. I can’t tell whether Lady Smart was happy to see the Colonel and the other fellow or not. She seemed very polite regardless. The rushes were a deodorizer then? We’re they two stinky men entering her country home where invited or not, they planned to stay for possibly more than a forthnight??? Methinks…she had sore eyes of disbelief.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. When I was looking up a general summary of the work by Swift, it said the work was a satire. Most of the characters are overly polite. I think Swift was pointing out the banality and emptiness of everyday conversation, particularly in his time.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That was a fun read. For some reason I assumed it was Shakespeare. I tend to think of that quote as positive because since I love Shakespeare so much and all his references concerning eyes are deeply moving, I tend to think of most quotes about eyes as revealing and quite lovely.
    ” Eyes are the windows to the soul.” “Love looks not with the eyes, but with the soul” there are so many by The Bard. And my favorite…”eyes look your last, arms take your last embrace and lips o you ….” well you get my point. I enjoyed your blog very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you.

      This post was fun to write. I also see this idiom as having a positive connotation. I always have.

      For some reason I assumed it was Shakespeare.

      Shakespeare was known to coin phrases we still use today, so I can see that.

      Speaking of eyes, I have another quote lined up for the 41st Famous Sayings Post. Next week, I will commemorate Worldwide Candle Lighting Day.

      Liked by 1 person

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