Last Writes

Richard Lederer with the Eyes Have It

Eye is the only palindromic body part. Eye, I, and aye are all homophones, yet each starts with a different letter.

When it comes to words and phrase origins, the eyes have it:

• Daisy was created in Old English from the poetical “day’s eye.” The flower is indeed a metaphor waiting to be born, with its sunburst center, its radiating white petals, and its sensitivity to the progress of the day, opening during the sunny hours and closing in the evening and extinguishing its brightness. The poet Geoffrey Chaucer, without benefit of any linguistic manual, referred to the sun as “the day’s eye, or else the eye of day.”

• Daylights is timeworn slang for the human eyes, dating back to at least the early eighteenth century. This makes a certain amount of sense since the eyes are the “source” of all the light we see. The practice of equating the eyes with lights or windows is even older; one Latin word for eye was lumen, meaning “light.” “To beat (or scare) the daylights out of” someone first meant to pummel or frighten him or her so badly that the person’s eyes, at least figuratively, popped out.

• Have you heard about the cross-eyed teacher? She couldn’t control her pupils. That pun plays on the two meanings of the word pupil. The first, “a student,” is borrowed from the Latin pupillus, “orphan, ward, minor.” A second meaning boasts the more enchanting etymology: In ancient Rome, the pupilla, “little doll,” was a diminutive of pupa, “girl.” When the Romans looked deep into each other’s eyes, they used the same word for the tiny doll-like images of themselves reflected there. They called the part of the eye that the image could be seen in the pupil.

• The adjective supercilious, literally “with raised eyebrows,” comes from the Latin super, “above,” and cilium, “eyelid” or “eyebrow.” A supercilious person is one who shows arrogance by figuratively or literally raising an eyebrow.

• An autopsy — Greek auto, “self” + opsy, “eye — is an examination of a dead person in which the coroner sees with his or her own eyes.

• Iris was originally the Greek word for “rainbow” and the goddess of rainbows and messenger of the gods. Later her name was applied to the colorful flower and to the thin, circular structure in our eyes that gives them color.

• Window started out as “the wind’s eye,” a feature of a home that would let out the eye-stinging smoke and odor of bodies and damp fur.

Richard Lederer M.A.T. English and Education, Ph.D. Linguistics, is the author of more than 40 books on language, history, and humor. His new book, A Tribute to Teachers, is available now at his web site — Write him at [email protected].