I was passing a sign today that said Eyewash, meaning a place where one could wash an eye that had some foreign matter in it; a common thing in laboratories and factories. But the first impression I gained was of eyewash, meaning something close to poppycock or codswallop.

This set me to wondering what the origin of this term was; Green's Dictionary of Slang doesn't even include this as a headword. This source here suggests it is the verbal equivalent of a wink; is that so? Does anyone know more about it?

Edit Sorry if this wasn't immediately apparent but it was the slang term I am most interested in.

  • My first impression of "eyewash" was a lotion, not a place to wash the eye. Or nonsense – Thursagen Sep 6 '11 at 20:19
  • Perhaps you were conflating it with hogwash? – David Richerby Dec 9 '15 at 19:45

The two meanings included in the Oxford English Dictionary for eyewash are:

  1. A wash or lotion for the eye.

  2. colloq. Something that is intended to obscure or conceal actual facts or motives; humbug, blarney; nonsense; something said or done merely for appearance or effect; spec. in Mil. slang = bull n.4 4.

The colloquial sense has written use dating from the 1800s:

1884 C. T. Buckland Sketch Social Life India ii. 45 Most officers of any tact understand the meaning of eye~wash.

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase gives some explanation of why eyewash also means to "obscure something", writing:

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So this "fulsome adulation" is figuratively putting a wash over someone's eyes. There are no clear references on where this "wash" came from. It could be from the first meaning of eyewash--if you are flattering someone, you are figuratively putting some type of wash in their eyes that prevents them from seeing your true intentions. It could also be from a meaning of "wash" as in a coat of paint (a wash of watercolor), so you are again obscuring someone's vision. I would guess that the slang sense was actually a figurative application of the first sense, however.

  • Thank you for your answer; it was the colloquial meaning I was most interested in. – Brian Hooper Sep 6 '11 at 20:40
  • @BrianHooper--I see, let me revise. – simchona Sep 6 '11 at 20:41
  • @simchona, or this wash could have been referring to the fact that everytime you blinked or winked, a film of liquid is spread over your eyeballs by your body – Thursagen Sep 6 '11 at 21:04
  • @Thursagen: That's another option. I didn't think of that. So it refers to the eywash-er, not the eyewash-ee. – simchona Sep 6 '11 at 21:05
  • 1
    Might it not be related to hogwash, which seems to have been used in the sense of rubbish/nonsense somewhat earlier than eyewash? – FumbleFingers Sep 6 '11 at 21:46

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