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I saw a photograph of Chris Robshaw, the Harlequins captain, in the paper yesterday sporting a magnificent shiner, and naturally started to wonder where the term originated.

Consulting Etymonline revealed a date (1904) but no explanation.

I also turned up a question on Answerbag stating that it is derived from the derogatory word shiner meaning a black person. The dates given in Etymonline make this quite plausible, but Green's Dictionary of Slang dates the first usage of shiner for black eye at 1797, which would tend to militate against this etymology.

The comments also suggest the name derives from the shiny skin of a black eye; I have some personal experience of these things and I can't say I've ever noticed.

Urban Dictionary has a different explanation:-

Term is of Irish origin where it was a punishment for not keeping machinery shiney delivered from the boot of a British officer.

I can't say I'm convinced by this.

So, does anyone know why a black eye is called a shiner?

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Etymonline is mostly just cribbed from the OED, which gives this as its earliest reference: 1904 ‘No. 1500’ Life in Sing Sing 253/1 ― Shiner, a discolored eye. –  tchrist Oct 30 '12 at 10:19
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Could it simply be that a big black, blue, or purple mark around your eye looks shiny? (Edit, I noticed you mentioned that as a possibility and that you hadn't noticed the skin as shiny. Looking at a couple pictures of black eyes online, the light does seem to reflect a little differently than off unbruised skin, giving a little bit of a shine. (It might also be that it's not actually shinier, but the color contrast draws your eye to it.) –  Kelly Tessena Keck Oct 30 '12 at 12:16
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I can't really answer this question, but I found another slang term for a black-eye (in a South Georgia newspaper, will have to try and find the source) that I've never seen before - a "bum lamp." I guess this give's more credence to the reflective hypothesis. –  patrick Nov 6 '13 at 17:12
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2 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

Since it's slang, it's going to be hard to pin down the exact origin of the phrase. I can think of two plausible derivations:

  1. The skin of a bruised eye is going to be swollen and pulled taut, and thus more reflective and "shiny" than the surrounding skin. I think this is secondary.

  2. The most plausible metaphor: Shoe shiners are not as common now as they were in the early 20th century. "Shiner" could refer to how the unfortunate person hasn't gotten their shoe shined, (usually with black shoe polish,) but rather the eye.

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From Dermatology by Otto Braun-Falco:

Ecchymoses following mechanical trauma, such as deep bruises or the well-known black eye or shiner go through predictable color changes from red-orange to red-blue or even deeper blue (the shiner), then red-yellow and finally pale yellow-tan.

It is uncertain if the author is suggesting that the deeper blue colour results in a glistening effect or if he's suggesting that only deeper blue ecchymoses are called shiners. In my opinion, it is the former.

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