meaning and origin of ‘hairy eyeball’


hairy eyeball - Akron Beacon Journal - 10 January 1976

Just checking
Just who is examining whom? That’s a question posed frequently at Portland, Ore., Zoo. Ann Moody, assistant to zoo veterinarian Dr. Michael Schmidt, makes her rounds every day in helping to protect the health of nearly 600 animals. Some of the animals — this curious seal, for example — give Ann the “hairy ball” too.

from the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) – 10th January 1976



The American-English phrase hairy eyeball, usually in to give (someone or something) the hairy eyeball, denotes an intent look. It is said to refer to the fact that when the eyes are narrowed, the eyeballs are ‘hairy’ from the near meeting of the eyelashes. However, according to Zoe Brockman in her column Unguarded moments, in The Gastonia Gazette (Gastonia, North Carolina) of 26th April 1972, the phrase refers to batting one’s eyelashes:

If I knew how to put on a superior air I’d do it today. Not only have I learned a new word, I’ve learned a whole new phrase — “the hairy eyeball.” Doesn’t sound pretty but all it means is, when girls flutter their eyelashes at males, they’re “giving them the hairy eyeball.”

The phrase has been applied to a variety of intentions and emotions: mere vigilance, suspicion, disapproval, hostility, but also appetite, craving, as well as sexual desire as in the above-mentioned article and in the earliest instance of the phrase that I have found; it is from It Happened Last Night, by the American columnist Earl Wilson (1907-87), published in the Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey) of 6th November 1961; the American actress Carol Burnett (born 1933) said to him, about her sixteen-year-old sister, Christine:

“With her everything is boys-boys-boys. She’s really educated me. She was telling me about a boy looking at her and she said, ‘He gave me the hairy eyeball.’ That meant he liked her.
“But if she didn’t like the boy she would say, ‘Oh, what a twitch!’ A twitch with a hairy ball would be bad, I guess.”

In its second-earliest occurrence, the phrase means to keep one’s eyes peeled; the following advertisement appeared in The Nashville Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee) of 29th August 1967:


Someone who’s alert
And a quiet creeper,
Who can see the slightest move
With his winkin’ wide peepers;
That’s what we need,
To guard our goods,
Are you out there, watchman,
Call, if you would.

In The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of 20th June 1970, the phrase means to look at in hunger:

Sixteen-year-old Jamie Buten of Highlands High School suddenly became caretaker for six baby opossums last month after their mother was killed by his dog.
At first he tried to feed them by the old hole-in-the-glove routine, but when it didn’t work, he switched to the honey-and-milk-in the eye dropper method. It worked fine! […]
One day Jamie noticed the opossums were giving the locust friends the hairy eyeball, so he tossed one in, and it was eaten pronto. Since they will have to eat more than once every 17 years, however, he has made the first attempt to create freeze-dried cicada.

In To Alexander G. Bell who created a monster, by Ann Martin, published in the New Castle News (New Castle, Pennsylvania) of 8th July 1971, to roll the hairy eyeball means to roll one’s eyes in impatience:

Maybe it was my punishment for chewing bubblegum in church or for littering the parsonage lawn with a Chewy-Fruity candy wrapper. Whatever the reason, I was being unmercifully jinxed by the telephone gods.
Information was what I needed and a certain Mrs. John Smith was the person to contact. I was phoning her under the adverse-est of adverse conditions, i.e. an impatient, 6 foot-10 inch supervisor rolling the hairy eyeball each time he passed my desk.

Merrill Shindler used to cast hairy eyeballs on in the sense to look at in disapproval in an article about the rock band Dr. Hook, Dr. Hook Still Crazy But Not Broke, published in Fort Lauderdale News (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) of 4th June 1976:

They’re not happy in the first place we try, a saloon called Sweet-water, where the turquoise-and-silvered patrons cast hairy eyeballs on these raging weirdos.

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