The eyes reject

From a Facebook discussion between a black woman T, a white guy C, and me, over the interpretation of a baffling — because drastically poor in detail — news story involving two young black men, a set of store employees, and a policeman: the guys asked for sliced cheese; an employee said the store didn’t carry it; the employee then herded the staff into a back room, locked it, and called the police; the cop who turned up told the guys they had to leave the store or they’d be arrested. T and I suspected that race might have been involved in the incident, and I was especially dubious about the sliced cheese part of the story; C maintained that race was not at issue, and in any case we didn’t have enough information to suspect that it did. At this point, T to C:

please don’t use your woke status to affirm your reading of the story and to presume that Arnold is alone in his side eye.

That is, my figurative side eye (or side-eye): I didn’t actually look sideways to express distrust or disbelief, but I certainly did express those attitudes (verbally rather than visually).

Slang check. The adjective woke ‘be socially aware’ (about the situation of black people), especially in the collocation stay woke, has spread relatively recently in AAVE. It’s natural for T to use it of C.

The compound side eye ‘a sidelong glance conveying disapproval, contempt, criticism, animosity, scorn; shock, surprise; distrust, disbelief’ (combining glosses from a number of different sources), on the other hand, turns out not to be particularly associated with black America, though, as it happens, I first heard it used by black speakers. Two illustrations of the gesture, from Justice Sonia Sotormayor and comedian Bernie Mac:



And as an emoji:


Now, on the expression and also the word, from Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching” site, the piece “The History of ‘Side-eye’: We have our eyes on this one. Chances are you’ve been on both ends of the side-eye. It’s that sidelong look, that glance or gaze that doesn’t want to involve the front of the face, but instead says way more by shifting to the corners of the looker’s eyes”:

People have of course been using side-eye forever, but the term side-eye (also styled side eye) is only newly popular. Since the end of the first decade of the 21st century it’s been increasingly used in major publications.

At its core, the term is about a physical act that communicates any number of things: suspicion, scorn, annoyance, jealousy, veiled curiosity. When we use the word, the context explains what the look being referred to expresses:

It’s this friendship, presented with utter sincerity, that serves as the movie’s emotional rudder. Though there’s humor in the unexpected pairing, the actors play it with the innocence of children who do not yet count the judging side-eye as part of their vocabularies. — Eliza Berman, Time, 18 Mar. 2016

The guy who stole your heart as the class clown can seem like just a clown out of his original context, like when people are giving him side-eye for cracking lame jokes in the hostess line. — Lauren Panariello, Cosmopolitan, July 2014

NZ comedian Steve Wrigley later commented that Kiwis have a unique habit of laughing enthusiastically, while at the same time sounding like they aren’t sure if they should be, and shooting a sneaky side-eye at their neighbours to make sure they are laughing too. — The Dominion Post (Wellington, New Zealand), 27 Apr. 2010

It’s often (and increasingly) used with the:

For the most part, the singular focus on results washes away concerns about getting the side-eye from a colleague judging you for not being in your cubicle, said Jack O’Laughlin, executive director of employment experiences at Edmunds. — Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, The Chicago Tribune, 18 Mar. 2016

Suddenly, Eddie … is attracting the attention of barons of the boardroom …, bullies on the street … and some mysterious third guy who keeps giving him the side eye and chasing him around Manhattan. — Cary Darling, The Detroit Free Press, 18 Mar. 2011

Newly ubiquitous though the word may be, it’s not a new term at all. James Joyce used it in Ulysses, published in 1922:

A side eye at my Hamlet hat. If I were suddenly naked here as I sit? I am not. Across the sands of all the world, followed by the sun’s flaming sword, to the west, trekking to evening lands.

But he was by no means the first. Our earliest evidence of side-eye in use is from 1797:

Here we come to what calls for the strongest eye-sight, the most steadfast gazing. Our being in Adam has been looked on with a side eye. The subject has provoked dislike; I may almost say, contempt. It is now painful to speak of it. — Remembrancer For Lord’s Day Evenings, 19 Mar. 1797

We’ve also seen some evidence of verb use, with the earliest example dating to 1916, but most evidence dating to the current decade:

In his mind’s-eye he saw himself associating with actor-folk, who invariably side-eye him and whispered among themselves: “That’s Alonzo Gubbins —frightfully wealthy — just about the real backing of the Frohman ventures –though, of course, Frohman is putting up the name and reputation!” — The Arizona Republican, 26 Aug. 1916

I naturally and perpetually side-eye every woman who can rock a pointed-toe shoe with ease. How divine your black, nude or brightly colored shoe looks on your tiny foot. — Lauren Porter, Essence, 23 Mar. 2016

With Zika Virus Headed North, American Scientists Side-Eye Asian Tiger Mosquitoes — headline, Inverse (, 9 Mar. 2016

One other thing about side-eye: in these modern times, there’s some debate about what exactly side-eye is — in particular, about whether or not a turn of the head disqualifies a sidelong glance from being side-eye. Some say you have to keep your head steady and straight ahead and do it all with your eyes.

From a lexicographer’s perspective, the jury is very much still out on that. If people refer to both versions as side-eye, then both versions qualify. We’ll see if that changes. In the meanwhile, throw side-eye however you like. We won’t take it personally.

Even stronger: stink-eye. These explorations took me to another eye-rejection compound, stink-eye, that I had also heard first from black speakers. This, too, seems not to have any strong connection to black speech.

From GDoS:

stink-eye (US) an aggressive, hostile look. 1989 shot the dude a direct stink-eye … 2007 Not a hug, not a handshake, just the fuckin’ stink-eye all night

give someone the stink-eye (v.) to stare at someone in a hostile manner. 1999 Vic gave Jay some of that piping-hot stink-eye …

stink-eye v. to stare at in a hostile manner … 2005 The clerk just stink-eyed the greenback

There seems to be a general feeling that stink-eye is more extreme, more malevolent, than side-eye, but the evidence is uncertain. For one thing, the very same photos (of Michelle Obama, for instance) appear as examples of both; only the heading or caption differs. On the other hand, some stink-eye photos do seem more extreme that your typical side-eye photo — but not because of what the subject’s eyes are doing (which is side-eye), but because of what their mouth is doing in addition (a lip curl or sneer, for example). An especially nice example, from the character Sam Weir in the U.S. tv show Freaks and Geeks, as played by John Francis Daley (later Lance Sweets on Bones):


(“Freaks and Geeks is an American teen comedy-drama television series, created by Paul Feig, with Judd Apatow as executive producer, that aired on NBC during the 1999–2000 television season.” (Wikipedia link))

One more: the eye-roll. The side-eye or stink-eye is directed at someone; it’s an aggressive act. Other eye-rejection gestures are aversive, and the most dramatic of these is the eye-roll, illustrated here dramatically by Saturday Night Live‘s Tina Fey:


(Note the oral reinforcement.)

The OED has citations for roll the/one’s eyes back to the 15th century (Milton, Paradise Lost; Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece), but referring to a gesture conveying lust. The aversive gesture is iconic and might well be universal or nearly so. But the great fashion for it among teenage girls seems to be relatively recent; in this context, it can sometimes be passive-aggressive, but very often it seems to be a display of independence.

More terminology for eye gestures conveying aggression and/or rejection. Just three more idioms that occurred to me: to look daggers at (someone), to give (someone) a dirty look, to give (someone) the hairy eyeball. I haven’t researched their histories.

One Response to “The eyes reject”

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