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.

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