|"Dere goes you a pretty feller girls.|
You better gib 'im da hairy eyeball!"1
What an odd phrase! My Mother, an old Alabama gal, used to tease us that way when a supposedly eligible bachelor walked by. I say "supposedly eligible" because she would pick out the ugliest, dirtiest, most unlikely bum on the street and tease us that he was husband material. I don't know where she picked up the term "hairy eyeball." She always said it in that exaggerated, comical way. I asked Mom about it, and she said that "everybody" used to say that when they meant for a girl to flirt with a boy. "If a girl liked a boy and he wasn't paying her any attention," she said, "Mama and all them old women would say, 'Well, give him the hairy eyeball!' Meaning to flirt with him. She was supposed to bat her eyelashes and flutter them and wink and all." And, Mother adds, "That's all you was supposed to give him. You wasn't supposed to give him no hugging and kissing and wallering all over him like girls do today! You'uz just supposed to make him think you would. But, back in the time when I was growing up, it was the boys running around and chasing after the girls, girls didn't have to chase boys. And if a boy liked a girl and he wanted to court her, why, he'd walk a hundred miles to see her on Sunday, or whatever day he got off and didn't have to work. He'd go see her."
That's a Southerner for you. Never say a plain statement if any kind of embellishment is handy. Appalachian people are especially poetic. The "hairy eyeball" phrase is not universal, though. I've asked other Southerners about "giving the hairy eyeball," but have yet to find anyone who ever said it besides my mother. I have found several on-line references to the "hairy eyeball" phrase. One is to "eye someone with suspicion." That would involve lowering the eyelashes to look through them, as if squinting. I've also stumbled across a handy reference site, The Phrase Finder which referenced the first-known printed usage of the phrase,2 as well as a Carol Burnett quote, where she uses the term, "hairy eyeball," in the same way that my mother did. It also mentions the other usage, connoting suspicion or doubt. I have even found a beer: LaGunitas Hairy Eyeball Ale.3 I'll bet that would put some hair on your chest!
1An effort has been made within this document to reproduce a dialect local to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The phrase, "Give him the hairy eyeball" has been written as it was pronounced by the speaker, in an exaggerated comic way. Other terms such as, "you'uz" (you was) and "wallering" (wallowing), have been written in the dialectic form that is her usual pronunciation.
2The Phrase Finder. Accessed 07 November 2007. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/hairy-eyeball.html>.
3LaGunitas Hairy Eyeball Ale. <http://www.lagunitas.com/>. Accessed 07 November 2007.
Revisions: This document was revised on 12 November 2007 to change footnotes and formatting, and to make minor changes in text.
Of technical necessity to aid in the search of articles on Appalachia:
PAGE REVISED 13 NOV 2007.