This word has many meanings: crooked, askew, not level, awry, lopsided, tilted, off-center, misaligned, absurd, impractical, drunk. It can also mean to be afflicted with cross-eye, squint, or any other visible abnormality of the eyes. We use “cockeyed” to describe anything unrealistic, eccentric or flamboyant, from artistic expression to building code violations.
Francis Grose defined it, in the 18th century, in his Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, “to shut one eye,” presumably as a gesture of mockery or skepticism. This usage seems a pretty clear precursor to “cockeyed,” at least in the “squint” sense. It has also been suggested that the act of squinting one’s eye as a gesture of suspicion or amusement was likened to “cocking” a gun.
The Random House Unabridged Dictionary says the word dates back to 1715-25. A cock-eye (or cocked eye) was originally an eye that had something wrong with it, an eye that is out of alignment, off-center in the sense a cocked hat is off-center. Random House lists cross-eyed as a synonym, though that word usually means one or both eyes are turned inward, whereas cock-eyed describes the situation when one or both eyes point outward.
And from now on, I’ll spell the word as “cockeyed” because the dictionary says I should!
The verb “cock” means to move something from its usual alignment or kilter, to set it askew, askant or awry. Its combination with eye in cockeyed makes eminent sense. If something is out of kilter, it is a little crazy, so the drift of the meaning from a little crazy to completely crazy makes sense, too.
Here are three theories as to the origin of “cockeyed.” The simple theory traces the word to the Gaelic word “caog,” meaning “wink,” especially in the compound “caogshuileach,” meaning “squint-eyed.”
A more complicated theory traces the “cock” in “cockeyed” to a male bird, especially a male chicken. This “cock” crops up in many English words and usages carrying the sense of either “to stick or stand up” or “to tilt or bend at an angle.” To “cock” a gun, for instance, is to set the hammer at an angle in preparation for firing, and to “cock” one’s hat means to wear it at a jaunty tilt. When a horse “cocks” its ears, they stand straight up like a strutting rooster, and when we say that someone is being “cocky,” we’re evoking that same image of an arrogant rooster’s upright posture. And, when one “cocks” one’s nose, one is simply tilting it upward.
Given the wide range of uses of “cockeyed” to mean “not quite right,” it’s not surprising that in the early 20th century it also became a popular colloquial term meaning “drunk.”
So what’s all that saying? That when life gets too cockeyed to bear that we should open up the wine and get cockeyed?