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What Does an Eye Roll Mean?

An eye roll is one of the most common forms of non-verbal communication. Someone says something sarcastic or does something annoying, and you just can’t help yourself – you have to roll your eyes.
But while people have been rolling their eyes at each other for centuries, the meaning behind it has changed drastically over time.

Strange as it may sound, rolling your eyes at someone in disbelief or annoyance is actually a relatively new thing – so new that even your grandparents might not understand it. That’s because until just 50 or 60 years ago, eye-rolling was more commonly used as a form of flirting!

Yes, according to Slate, eye-rolling as an expression of desire goes back all the way to Shakespeare’s time, with examples of flirtatious eye-rolling in literature, music, and film continuing from the 16th century right up through the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that eye-rolling fully acquired the meaning we associate with it today, and even then, it didn’t become widespread until the 1980s.

The recent origins of eye rolling as we know it may explain why even today rolling your eyes might mean different things to different people. While most people agree that eye rolling has negative connotations – to the point where some communities have even attempted to outlaweye rolling – communications experts say that misinterpreting eye rolls is common. And that doesn’t even include cultural differences, such as the fact that some African tribes use eye rolling as a signifier of male beauty.

Still, some disciples of alternative medicine believe eye rolling actually has positive health benefits, including boosting your brain power. While that claim might make you roll your own eyes, eye rolling does sometimes have a connection to ocular health: Involuntary eye-rolling (known as nystagmus) can be a sign of serious medical conditions, including Duane syndrome and congenital cataracts. If you’re experiencing involuntary eye-rolling, be sure to consult with your eye doctor.