Exasperation is pervading the political body language in Washington these days. Republican leaders reacted to Barack Obama’s press conference Monday with “a joint eye-roll,” according to the Washington Post. The unproductive debt negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, as Politico notes, were marked by “lengthy Obama lectures and much eye-rolling.” 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.
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