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Orey-eyed

Q From Maurits Zwankhuizen, Canberra, Australia: Firstly thanks for your great and informative Web site. I have an interesting term that I have came across: orey-eyed. The etymology is unknown, as far as my research could tell, so I’m interested to see if you can discover where its origin lies.

A It was new to me too, which added interest to my search. It is quite common online, especially in reference to the Orey-eyed Oghamist, whoever he is. One dictionary site defined it as “expressing anger through the eyes”. An article on horsemanship said that orey-eyed meant the same as wall-eyed, for a an eye with a streaked or opaque white iris.

None of my standard reference works contained it, but I ran it to earth in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which says it means “having bleary or wild-looking eyes, especially as a result of drunkenness” and that it could also mean that somebody is drunk or enraged. It has examples going back to a discussion of it by H L Mencken in 1919, though the first appearance that DARE includes from real life is in Chevrons, a war novel by Leonard Nason dated 1926: “‘I know him,’ said Short, ‘he’s the man that brought you home the night you got orey-eyed at Cokeydawn.’” The earliest example I’ve found is in The Post Standard of Syracuse in 1910: “And Harte did a job on the orey-eyed slob that was vivid and livid and nifty.”

Now at last to your question. Nobody knows the answer for certain. Mencken thought it was actually awry-eyed, which is a reasonable guess, but DARE points to the old Scottish term oorie, which is defined in the Concise Scots Dictionary as referring to persons or things that are “dismal, gloomy, miserable-looking, from cold, illness, etc.” If you include drunkenness in that etc., you’re well on the way to the modern American sense.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Aug. 2006

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 19 August 2006.