History Trivia #5: The History of the Eye-roll

I’m editing the first preview chapter (these previews are drafts; expect unannounced changes until further notice), and I noticed some details that I hadn’t fully researched. For example, there’s an instance when a character rolls their eyes in annoyance. I took this for granted on the first draft, but this time I realized that I should check eye-rolling for historicity. I remember browsing a book on anthropology many years ago and reading that some gestures are considered timeless and universal, or nearly so, while others belong to a particular period and culture.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, eye-rolling existed in 17th century England, but it used to be flirty.

Cue a Slate article:

When did rolling one’s eyes become a way to signal disapproval?

Just in the last few decades. In previous centuries, it often meant the opposite—a look of passion and lust. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, people have been “rolling their eyes” since at least the 15th century. In Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece, he describes the rapist Sextus Tarquinius as looking hungrily upon Lucrece’s bed and “rolling his greedy eyeballs in his head.” A passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost warns of tempting women who are made only for “the taste/ Of lustful appetence … to troll the tongue, and roll the eye.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, rolling one’s eyes could signal “delicious danger” along with flirtation and loving affection. But the meaning of the gesture was still diverse: Other times the rolling of the eyes was described as a sign of savage ferocity, such as in the wild eyes of a rampaging horse, and by the time of Uncle Tom’s Cabin you could roll your eyes even as you were being droll and deadpan.

Another citation from the OED suggests that by 1931 you could roll your eyes “lugubriously,” and in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) Joe rolls his eyes “indifferently.” While this begins to approach today’s meaning, the old interpretation persisted at least as late as 1950, when Hank Penny’s 1950 song “Bloodshot Eyes” told of a fallen woman who would “roll those big brown eyes” to seduce a former flame. And some other meanings persisted, too: In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are from 1963, the titular monsters “roll their terrible eyes.” (Another sort of eye roll, in which the eyes roll straight up and back into the head, is still used to signal a sort of orgasmic pleasure, such as after a good meal. It’s unclear if this looks anything like the eye rolls described by Shakespeare and Penny.)


Well, that’s a bummer for staging that scene. But it is interesting.

3 thoughts on “History Trivia #5: The History of the Eye-roll

  1. I’m pretty sure most people won’t notice. Like modern dentistry in historical movies.

    Then again, if you’re writing a historical novel, your target audience probably contains more than a few of the exact sort of nitpickers who’d check on something as minor as eye-rolling.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d like to point out that I’M one of those nitpickers, sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Most people won’t. The pesky thing is that I will. I guess my mission is to capture that pedant audience.


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