What’s the origin of “sight for sore eyes”?

A STAFF REPORT FROM THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD

Dear Straight Dope:

Could you tell me the origin of the idiom "sight for sore eyes"? I know it's a good thing, but someone special in my life takes it to mean exactly the opposite.

Ken replies:

“A sight for sore eyes,” meaning “I’m glad to see you,” uses definition 5  for "sore" from my American Heritage Dictionary: "full of distress; grieved; sorrowful." Sore in this sense is used frequently in the King James Version of the Bible. In the Christmas story, for example, the “shepherds were sore afraid," meaning they were skeered something terrible, not that they had muscle fatigue (although a shepherd’s life is hard). So a “sight for sore eyes” translates as something like, “the sight of you puts my mind at ease." As an aside, if I had a dime for every time I’ve seen “A Site For Sore Eyes” outside an optometrist’s office, I could buy eyewear for shepherds everywhere.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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