Calling all cliches: Eye watering

The description of a large quantity of money as ‘an eye-watering sum’ has been with us for the last decade or so. And it’s always been irritating for several reasons.

First, because no one uses the expression outside the media. Second, because its meaning is unclear: Are you being squeezed so tight that you’re crying in pain? Or are you weeping in sorrow at the expense? And third, because the amounts involved cover so wide a range, from saving ‘an eye-watering £80’ on a household shopping bill (Star 24 May 2016), through to FIFA saying that three of its officials had awarded themselves ‘eye-watering contracts’ worth £70 million (Sun 4 June 2016). As a unit of measurement, it’s a little imprecise.

More recently, though, the continuing prevalence of the expression has added a new layer of annoyance. Because now it’s just being employed indiscriminately, going far beyond the idea of sums of money. Sometimes it retains the sense of a genuine metaphor, but those cases are swamped by the casual use, meaning simply ‘a lot’ or, even worse, ‘quite noteworthy’.

Here are some examples from the press over the last month:

  • Keith Earls recalled last weekend the eye-watering physicality that assaulted him with the Lions in 2009. – Sunday Times 12 June 2016
  • Old Trafford bosses have been working hard behind the scenes to try to entice Ibrahimovic with an eye-watering one-year deal. – Sun 11 June 2016
  • English is one of the most competitive courses with some eye-watering grade requirements. – Independent 10 June 2016
  • Over the course of an hour or so and a quick wander around the garden, the simple dishes that I had planned had transformed into an eye-watering feast. – Sunday Telegraph 5 June 2016
  • It came in the midst of a hectic weekend which saw them hammered in a group T20 match by Tynemouth and turn out a weakened team in the Banks Salver while losing by an eye-watering 279 runs to rivals Benwell Hill. – Northern Echo 4 June 2016
  • An eye-watering 7,500 miles in total, the annual event begins in Cairo each January and ends in Cape Town in May. – Express 2 June 2016
  • Brexit campaigners tried to double VAT on energy bills before yesterday saying they would scrap the levy if Britain quit the EU. Senior Vote Leave MPs Boris Johnson and Michael Gove say the EU-enforced rate can be dropped if Britain votes out at the June 23 referendum. But their Tory Vote Leave pals introduced an 8% rate in 1994, then tried to hike it to an eye-watering 17.5% just a year later. – Daily Mirror 1 June 2016
  • He’s run an eye-watering 976 marathons. – South Wales Echo 30 May 2016
  • The richness, emotional power, resignation, and the valedictory ache of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in an eye-watering performance by Norwegian soprano Marita Solberg. – Sunday Herald 29 May 2016
  • This is no PE lesson – each obstacle course spans 30 eye-watering obstacles. – Daily Telegraph 28 May 2016
  • It was eye-watering stuff watching Wales’ fitness chief Ryland Morgans put the men in red through their paces, the drills and sessions at an intensity that surprised. – Western Mail 26 May 2016
  • The dancing is sharp, energetic and almost eye-watering at times. – Northampton Chronicle and Echo 24 May 2016
  • Europe’s biggest ever inflatable slide, which measured up at an eye-watering five storeys high and 200ft long. – Western Mail 23 May 2016
  • ‘Eye-watering’ scale of Black Death’s impact on England revealed. – Guardian headline 23 May 2016
  • As her eye-watering ‘sex-drive confession’ romped to its knickershredding climax, I began to suspect the only person [Saira] Khan cared was happy was not Steve but herself. – Sunday Times 22 May 2016
  • Earlier this season, in eye-watering detail, he retold the story of his failed epidural pain-killer and its agonised aftermath following an eight-hour operation for cancer 15 years ago. – Times 21 May 2016
  • With Kate [the Duchess of Cambridge] on board, the catamaran reached an eye-watering top speed of 34 knots. – Independent 20 May 2016
  • Police carrying out speed checks were stunned when a motorist zoomed past – at an eye-watering 125mph. – Birmingham Post 19 May 2016
  • Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the commander of the US army in Europe, has described Russian advances in electronic warfare – a field in which they were typically supposed to be backward – as ‘eye-watering’. – Independent 19 May 2016
  • His drive is eye-watering – four hours’ sleep a night, doesn’t believe in holidays. – Times 13 May 2016
  • The workload he and his peers had to contend with before reaching the exam diet was truly eye-watering. – Herald 9 May 2016
  • The eye-watering, bone-juddering intensity of Connacht’s defence provided the dominant theme of the match. – Times 9 May 2016
  • The DUP’s ‘Arlene uber alles’ campaign … was hardly eye-watering tribalism by the standards of Northern Ireland. – Sunday Times 8 May 2016

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