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Bodily functions

mp_11970_moneyScarcely a day goes by without Robert Peston, the BBC Business Editor, telling us of yet another eye-watering sum of money being allocated by government to a failing bank, or an eye-watering loss sustained by a major corporation.

Here he is on his blog on 5th January this year:
And we can be fairly confident that they remain on course to meet much reduced expectations for their profits this year (a bit over £600m in the case of Marks & Spencer, down from £1.1bn last year, or an eye-watering drop of around 45%).

And on 13th February:
What generated the colossal loss at HBOS was, to a large extent, eye-watering charges of £7bn on corporate loans that have gone badin part reflecting the recession we’re in.

And again on 11th March:
And that would generate an eye-watering loss for the Bank of £30bn.

The expression has been around for a good long time now. In 1999, the website noted that in a restaurant being reviewed “[t]he wine list ranges from £14 for the house white to an eye-watering £120 for a bottle of Chateau Talbot, St Julien 1982” and in December 2003, the Guardian warned that “Britain’s commuters will face ‘eye-watering’ increases in fares across the national rail network next month” (note the fact that the journalist put quotes around it).

Strangely, the adjective eye-watering occurs in hardly any dictionaries. It’s not in OED, which lists only the noun, undefined, along with a few other verbal nouns (eye-casting, eye-devouring, eye-gouging, eye-watering).  Luckily, the adjective is in MEDO, with this definition: an eyewatering amount is extremely high or large, and much higher or larger than you  would expect.

There are a number of adjectives formed like this, referring to parts of the body and what they do, or what you do to them. So, while the price tag of the Chateau Talbot might be eye-watering, the prospect of sipping a glass is mouth-watering. Sad stories are heart-rending, sudden shocks are heart-stopping; frightening tales are spine-tingling, spine-chilling or even hair-raising. A tense finish to a sports encounter is nail-biting. And a truly embarrassing moment can only be described as toe-curling. Of course, all of these are metaphorical uses – your heart does not literally rend at the end of a very sad movie, and your hair isn’t really raised by something that frightens you.

But sometimes there are more literal meanings involved. In 2005, Lawrence Booth was describing a one-day international cricket match between England and Australia live on the Internet. At one stage he wrote: “Gough stays on, despite leaking an eye-watering 31 runs from his first three overs.” So far, so metaphorical. But a short while later, he observes:  “Harmison roars in and hits Lee in a particularly eye-watering part of the body. Even Harmison winces”. Anyone who has ever played cricket will sympathise with Lee. The very thought is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

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Stephen Bullon


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