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shameless pleading






Not quite right.

Dear Word Detective: How did the word “cockeyed” originate? I checked your archives and was surprised to find that it was not there. — Jeannie.

Me too. I’ve half a mind to report myself to the person in charge of such things. In fact, I hereby demand an official investigation of my malfeasance, preferably conducted in Honolulu. I can’t take much more of the weather around here.

“Cockeyed” is an interesting word. It first appeared in print in the early 19th century, although we can assume it had already been in oral use for some time prior to that date, and since that time it has developed a number of meanings. Its original use was to mean “squint-eyed,” as if, for instance, the person was displaying a skeptical or suspicious attitude (or, of course, simply suffering from myopia).

By the 1890s, “cockeyed” had developed nearly the opposite meaning, that of “wide-eyed, unrealistic and perhaps slightly crazy.” This is the sense of “cockeyed” in the song “Cockeyed Optimist” from the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” (“I have heard people rant and rave and bellow / That we’re done and we might as well be dead / But I’m only a cock-eyed optimist / And I can’t get it into my head”). We also use “cockeyed” to describe anything unrealistic, eccentric or flamboyantly unconventional, from artistic expression (“Her cockeyed melodies, emphatic beats and creative vocal arrangements are unusual but catchy,” NPR, 1/4/2011) to building code violations (“In that cockeyed shack, with a roof so low that I could stand up only on one side,” 2010). “Cockeyed” is also used as a synonym of “askew” (“When it’s summer in the North, it’s winter in the South. Completely cockeyed,” A. Koestler, 1945) and to mean literally “out of alignment” (“Bob’s car wouldn’t do over ten miles per hour because of the cockeyed wheel”).

Given the range of uses of “cockeyed” to mean “not quite right,” it’s not surprising that in the early 20th century it also became a popular colloquial term meaning “drunk” (“‘You’re cock-eyed,’ I said. ‘On wine?’ ‘Why not?’,” E. Hemingway, 1926).

There are two theories as to the origin of “cockeyed,” one simple and one devilishly complicated and vague. The simple story traces “cockeyed” to the Irish and Gaelic word “caog,” meaning “wink,” especially in the compound “caogshuileach,” meaning “squint-eyed.” I like this theory because agreeing with it means I get to go home early. See ya later.

Oh, all right. The more complicated theory traces the “cock” in “cockeyed” to “cock” meaning a male bird, especially a male chicken. This “cock” crops up in a large number of English words and uses variously carrying the sense of either “to stick or stand up” or “to tilt or bend at an angle.” To “cock” a gun, for instance, is to set the hammer at an angle in preparation for firing, and to “cock” one’s hat means to wear it at a jaunty tilt. But when a horse “cocks” its ears, they stand straight up like a rooster strutting through the barnyard, and when we say that someone is being “cocky,” we’re evoking that same image of an arrogant rooster’s exaggerated upright posture. The two senses are not really opposed in practice, however; when one “cocks” one’s nose, one is simply tilting it upward.

Within this cloud of “cockiness,” the phrase “to cock one’s eye” arose in the middle of the 18th century meaning, as Francis Grose defined it in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, “to shut one eye,” presumably as a gesture of mockery or skepticism. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the phrase also meant “to turn the eye with a knowing look” (“Timothy put on his hat, cocked his eye at me, and left us alone,” 1836). This usage seems a pretty clear precursor to “cockeyed,” at least in the “squint” sense. It has also been suggested that the act of squinting one’s eye as a gesture of suspicion or amusement was likened to “cocking” a gun.

The bottom line is that, although I like the Irish Gaelic “caog” theory for its simplicity, the existence of “to cock one’s eye” tends to bolster the case for “cockeyed” having some connection, albeit several times removed, to the behavior of roosters.

8 comments to Cockeyed

  • Bill

    I just did a tour of a grist mill, and aparently ‘cock eyed’ comes from a miller. There is a pin im the middle of a mill stone upon which the top grimd stone sits. This pin is called the cock. The upper grind stone rests on this pin at a divot in the bale which supports the weight of the stone. This divot is called the eye. In order for a mill and its grindstone to work properly, the upper grindston must be perfectly ballanced so that it spins on the cock without any wobble. If it wobbles, it will create sparks and ruin the wheet or corn being ground. So a grind stone must be ‘cock-eyed’ in order to work properly. A miller needs to keep their ‘nose to the grindstone’ in order to tell if their stone is burning the grain or corn, because it is a very apparent smell.

  • Think Bill has got it right. These sayings usually come from something practical, more than personal

  • […] the way, word cockeyed has a very interesting etymology you can read about on The Word Detective, here.  Getting back to the subject of this post (mainly me), I’ve known for a long while that […]

  • gerald d sellers

    I was asked what it meant my reply when I don’t know is always. Well in the book of sellers is says,” Cockeyed means to cock eyes to one side and probably came about with flint hammer lock guns and black powder. because back then when you shot your gun you got awful powder burns anyway. So you cock your gun, take aim and turn your eyes slightly befor you pull the trigger. Because powder burns in the eyes will blind you. So when you were ready to pull the trigger you just moved your eyes to a safe place while still looking at the target but not right down the middle just off to the left side a bit (cockeyed)

  • Mary-Lou M

    I always thought “cock-eyed” mean “wall-eyed” (or crazy). It seems that all sources go back to using one eye over the other, as a cock (rooster) does when looking at something close up. Poultry, like most prey animals, have eyes on opposite sides of their head, so they can see predators coming from both sides. If they want to focus on food, they use one eye.

  • I think cockeyed did originate with rooster behaviour. When you have too many
    Roosters they fight for dominance and you end up with some one-eyed young roosters ,
    Hence the term cockeyed.

  • Sharon

    Growing up in California in the 1970s I was raised to learn the slang “cock-eyed” as a term for something that is off-centered. So that is how I’ve used the slang through the years

  • Rick Geggie

    Is it true that some indigenous cultures see people with eyes that aim in different directions as people who see into many different dimensions and ‘worlds’?
    Would having to ‘rooster’ give more neural data than the more common having to just integrate data from two sources not that divergent?
    Does ‘cockeyed’ refer to divergent, non-ordinary perspectives?
    What are the benefits and gifts of being Cock-Eye for you?
    The biggest gift for me is being me, not pretending to be like other people. Enjoying my uniqueness.
    Try to be cock-eyed. Parents are misinformed about lots of things.

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