Ever since I read a column by The News Courier Managing Editor Adam Smith in which he used the term “stinkeye,” I’ve been intrigued by the word’s origins.
This is not to be confused with pinkeye, a highly-contagious medical condition most often contracted at school by children and carried home much to the dismay of siblings and parents.
I consulted the Merriam Webster online dictionary, and according to an associate editor Corey Stamper, while stinkeye is slang in origin it doesn’t come from the streets, but from the world of sports.
Stamper said it is not yet included in the dictionary, but it has “staying power” and she foresees a day in which it will be in proper use. One of the indicators is that when it is used, writers no longer feel the need to bracket the word in quotation marks, which pretty much means it’s on its way into the modern lexicon.
Stamper tracks the word back to at least the late 1980s and it is believed to be Hawaiian in origin and was first used in water or beach sports.
Now, stinkeye, as inelegant as it sounds, is generally meant to give someone a look of dislike, disdain or disgust, such as the equally inelegant “hairy eyeball” of a few decades earlier.
I believe my late mother noticed early what she perceived to be my use of the stinkeye when I was a pre-school child. She would accuse me: “Don’t you look through your eyebrows at me!” She also predicted that I would get in big trouble with teachers and classmates – much as I’d already gotten in trouble with her, my father and my siblings – if I persisted in employing “the look” after I started school.
Her admonition came true.
I rocked along for a few years, suffering various repercussions from transmitting the juvenile equivalent of the stinkeye. But had I and those on the receiving end of this facial gesture understood, as I now understand, the mechanics, they would have known it was probably not as uncivil as it appeared.
People in today’s polite society are much more skillful in how they apply the stinkeye. It is not the head-on, dropped-brow scowl of my childhood, which was, in fact, diagnosed in the sixth grade to be a case of extreme nearsightedness.
Stinkeye is not to be mistaken for passive-aggressive eye rolling usually accompanied by a long-suffering sigh. Rather, it is a cutting of the eyes and an almost imperceptible lifting of one brow in passing, performed in just that right fleeting moment and at the precise trajectory that the recipient has no doubt they’ve been stinkeyed. However – and here’s the kicker – the victim is not sufficiently convinced to pivot and return a full-frontal stinkeye or inquire of the assailant if he or she would like to take it outside, which, of course, lacks finesse.
According to my online sources, one of the few acceptable times for a full-frontal stinkeye is if one’s employer applies it, and then you know you had better shape up before it results in notations in your personnel file.
And, indeed, I would not have revisited the ramifications of stinkeye had I not suspected that I was targeted by this particularly effective form of non-verbal communication just the other day following close on the heels of a sweet and gentle greeting in one of those frou-frou places of business.
But perhaps I shouldn’t jump to possibly unjust conclusions. Could be a simple case of nearsightedness, or maybe even pinkeye.
(Karen Middleton, though retired from The News Courier, is a frequent contributor and is editor of Boom magazine.)