6

Easy on the eye/s

  • Also,easy to look at. Attractive, beautiful, as in That model is definitely easy on the eyes. ; c. 1900 .

(AHD)

Easy on the ear/s:

  • To have a pleasant and enjoyable sound. I find classical music to be very easy on the ear. After months of lessons, your sister's piano playing is finally easy on the ear.

Though the meaning of the above expressions is intuitive, you would not say that the model is easy or that classical music is easy without being easily misunderstood.

So what usage does "easy" in the above expression refer to? did "easy" at the beginning of the 20th century have a different connotation? Was it an AmE expression originally?

  • 2
    Don't forget, Americans also say "eye candy" – Mari-Lou A Jan 18 '18 at 15:24
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    It means "easy [to cope with]". In the sense that it isn't difficult to endure the sight (sound) of it. In the same way we may say "This food isn't too bad." when we actually mean it's good, we often mean the same thing when we say something is easy on the ears/eyes. – Myridium Jan 19 '18 at 0:33
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    @Myridium Some cultures consider this construction a bit offensive. While it is common in North America and the UK, some people have trouble understanding "this food isn't too bad" is actually a compliment. – Ramon Melo Jan 19 '18 at 9:25
  • @RamonMelo in which English speaking county is it not true? I'm in Australia. – Myridium Jan 19 '18 at 9:45
  • @Myridium None that I know of, but English is an effective second language in many countries. By "some cultures", I meant "cultures that do not speak English as their official language". Sorry for being vague. – Ramon Melo Jan 19 '18 at 9:57
16

The phrases 'easy on the eye/s' and 'easy on the ear/s' are idioms. Idioms must have two properties:

(1) they are in relatively common use (don't ask how common), informed use of course and

(2) there must be some peculiarity about the expression – unusual syntax, an unusual sense of a word, an unusual interpretation for the whole string, or a mix of these. Often, there is a different meaning than one would normally identify ('kick the bucket' = 'die'). Such idioms are opaque.

Here, 'easy on the eyes' is a parallel construction to 'hard on the knees' say. The idiom is reasonably transparent (OP uses the word 'intuitive'), and so common that AHD say includes the sense of 'easy' involved:

easy adj. ... 4a Affording comfort or relief [/pleasure; not causing any pain at all]; soothing: soft light that was easy on the eyes.

It's probably best to treat 'easy on the eye/ear...' as a single idiom, but the metaphorical use of 'on' ('This jogging is so hard [ie causes excessive wear and tear, pain not pleasure] on the knees' / 'Don't be so hard on him'), implying imposition, is more general.

Tracing the etymology of AHD sense 4a for 'easy' probably equates to finding the first occurrence of 'easy on the eye/s'. The phrase was probably not used much before 1920, if these Google Ngrams accurately portray the situation.

The sense occurs elsewhere: 'This wine is very easy to drink.' This Ngram again supports the 1920s date for the increase in use of this sense of 'easy'.

  • 1
    easy on the eye contrasts with plural usage easy on the eyes/hard on the eyes. While easy on x can be singular, I'd argue that the hard version requires plural. – Lambie Jan 18 '18 at 15:01
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    Yes +! Edwin. But I would add a third property to your list pertaining to idioms i.e. an idiom is an expression in popular usage. – WS2 Jan 18 '18 at 15:38
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    @WS2 How does that differ from (1)? – Edwin Ashworth Jan 18 '18 at 17:23
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    It is understatement. If it is "hard" [difficult, painful] to look at an ugly person, then it could be said to be "easy" to look at a beautiful person, a euphemistic understatement of "pleasurable". – Nigel Touch Jan 18 '18 at 20:02
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    how common does it need to be? :p – Aequitas Jan 19 '18 at 4:09
6

It refers to the viewer! Because a beautiful model is 'easy to look at' so she is 'easy on your eyes' - ie, your eyes have no resistance to seeing her! It is 'easy to look' - because it is a pleasure! The person having an easy time - is you - not the model! It is no reflection on her - it is talking about your experience in observing her.

If she were ugly, and you needed to look at her, you'd have to work at it, wouldn't you? Because it would then not be a pleasure to see her. It would take effort - and would not then be - easy - for you.

Similarly, 'easy on the ears' means that the listener, ie you, would have no resistance to listening - as it is easy to listen - because it is a beautiful sound. So it is you having an easy time, as the listener - and no reflection on anyone else.

  • I understand the meaning, my question is on the usage of "easy" meaning attractive, pleasant which is not found in other usage forms, like "the model is easy". The idiomatic expressions iare from the early 20th century, while easy is a much older term. – user067531 Jan 18 '18 at 13:11
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    In my view, the word 'easy' does not directly mean 'attractive' here. The whole phrase 'easy on the eye' does. You asked 'what does "easy" in the above expression refer to', which is what I answered. – Jelila Jan 18 '18 at 13:18
  • well, easy on your eye might well refer to something easily visible, while it means attractive, so I think there is some shades of meaning we may be missing. – user067531 Jan 18 '18 at 13:28
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    I don't think so, @user159691, it's an expression... Think of easy as meaning 'not hard'. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/easy%20on%20the%20eye – Jelila Jan 18 '18 at 13:50
  • Right, easy on the eye as opposed to hard on the eyes, in the plural. Funny thing that.....this task is hard on the eyes. Switches to plural. – Lambie Jan 18 '18 at 14:55
6

Yes, it is of US origin. It is an idiom deriving from OED sense 9 of the word easy - conducive to ease or convenience, as in easy chair. Sense 9c makes specific reference to women's looks, but in our less gendered society I see no reason why it should not apply to males.

9c. In phrases easy to look at, easy on the eye(s), affording pleasure to the beholder; esp. of women: comely, beautiful. colloq. (orig. U.S.). Also in various combinations, as easy-to-make, easy-to-operate, easy-to-use, easy-to-wear, etc.

1902 G. Ade Girl Proposition 141 He put his Tag on a blonde Canary 17 Years of Age who spelled Sure with an H and had from 7 to 9 Thoughts every 24 Hours. But she was very Easy to Look at.

1922 P. G. Wodehouse Clicking of Cuthbert x. 253 Her Highness is the easiest thing to look at these eyes have ever seen.

1937 C. Beaton Diary 3 June in Wandering Years (1961) 310 A pliable, easy-to-pose subject.

1937 Punch 8 Sept. 260/1 The same incorrigibly cheerful creature, very easy to look at, very pleasant to listen to.

1938 Amer. Speech 13 205 [The dictionary] is a substantial compilation, easy on the eyes, comparatively rich in idiomatic expressions.

1939 Vogue's Cookery Bk. i. 15 This is an easy-to-make soup for a hot day.

1943 D. E. Stevenson Two Mrs. Abbotts v. 35 Miss Walters was certainly easy on the eye.

1949 Consumer Reports Feb. 68/2 Many prospective purchasers want an easy-to-operate device.

1951 in M. McLuhan Mech. Bride 153/1 The same easy-to-follow lessons.

1958 Oxf. Mail 1 July 6/5 One of the good Westerns, easy on the eye and mind, and pretty tough on the pulses.

1959 Times 9 Mar. Suppl. p. x/3 Easy-to-serve packed foods.

1959 News Chron. 10 Aug. 6/5 This hat has the soft easy-to-wear line.

1959 Woman's Own 20 June 52/1 (advt.) The only home perm lotion in a tube with its own easy-to-use applicator-tip.

1960 Farmer & Stockbreeder 15 Mar. 122/1 This tough, easy-to-use, real wood building panel.

1960 Guardian 25 Apr. 4/1 Easy-to-follow recipes.

  • I prefer the treatment in say AHD. This section conflates two senses. But the answer to the question of origin and the 1902 reference make this worth an upvote. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 18 '18 at 16:43
  • @EdwinAshworth - actually the OED entry is much more on the spot than the AHD one. They mention the usage I am asking about “comely, beautiful” with reference to people, women in particular. What is still not clear to me is the construction. It appears that easy meant beautiful but in sentences like “easy to look at”, but could it be used as an ordinary adjective like “an easy woman” meanings “ a beautiful woman”? – user067531 Jan 18 '18 at 17:09
  • 'This Shiraz is easy to drink' and 'This bottle is easy to open' use very different senses of 'easy'. The 'not presenting an obvious problem' sense as opposed to the 'pleasurable' sense is shown in say 'I did not find it easy to drink for several days after the operation'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 18 '18 at 17:18
  • @user159691 The term "easy woman" would carry very unfortunate connotations. It is very close to "woman of easy virtue", a now dated euphemism for a promiscuous woman. – WS2 Jan 18 '18 at 19:09
  • @WS2 - I am well aware of that, from which my question on the subtle connotation that easy carries in this respect. – user067531 Jan 18 '18 at 19:11
3

It's an idiom, with a slightly ironic tone. In both cases easy can be seen as an adverb modifying the process of looking/listening, rather than an adjective applying to the actual subject.

Easy here means "not difficult", with the idea that unattractive things are "difficult to look at", and discordant music is "difficult to listen to".

So, "easy on the eye" means "not difficult or unpleasant to look at", and "easy on the ear" means "not difficult or unpleasant to listen to".

So, if someone says of a woman "she is easy on the eye", they mean "It's enjoyable to look at her."

1

To expand on other excellent answers, the word on following easy generally invokes one of a couple of possible idiomatic meanings.

From Collins:

go/be easy on sb

phrase

If you tell someone to go easy on, or be easy on, a particular person, you are telling them not to punish or treat that person very severely.

From The Free Dictionary:

go easy on someone or something

to be gentle on someone or something; not to be too critical of someone or something; to take it easy on someone or something. (See also go easy on something.) Go easy on Sherri. She's my friend. Try to go easy on criticizing their report. They did the best they could in the time allotted.

(Another meaning of to go easy on something is to use the thing sparingly, which does not apply here.)

So to be easy on something is to be gentle, not severe, not harsh, and not punishing. This can apply to many more objects than just one's eyes or ears. Easy on the eyes/ears, however, is arguably even more idiomatic than most such uses of the idiom, since the sight or hearing of something slightly less beautiful is not actually painful to the eyes or ears; that is, these particular variations of the idiom imply pleasure, not just the absence of suffering.

-2

Think of easy as how easily you could rate the person's attractiveness. If you see a 10 or 11 - that's easy to spot and point out to your friends. If you see a 6 or a 7 it is harder to quantify if it is a 6 or a 7 and thus is not as easy to rate or point out to your friends.

Same with sound. Is it easy to understand what you are listening to (legible but for sound [blanking on the word right now if there is one]). Is it easy to tap your foot along to [insert favorite pop song here] or not easy to tap your foot along to [insert least favorite genre of music here]

  • You fragile souls. May the comfort of your baby's blanket keep you safe and warm until the end of time. – user1886419 Jan 19 '18 at 17:52

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