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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

eye candy

(mid-1990’s | journalese (film)? | “thing of beauty,” “center of attention,” “knockout”)

“Eye candy” has a wider range of use than I had realized, applicable to almost any person, place, or thing, as long as he, she, or it is visually appealing and commands attention. It’s toned young bodies in bathing suits, but it’s also children’s book illustrations, landscapes, or special effects in a movie. Sometimes used as a hyphenated adjective. The phrase started to appear in the eighties, and from the beginning it could denote people or things. In 1989, the Washington Post noted that Baywatch boasted “as much eye candy for guy watchers as for girl watchers,” because it was an “equal-opportunity undresser.” But the first use in LexisNexis (1986) lists “props, costumes, extras” as examples of “eye candy” for a film producer. Eye candy may be intended to distract or serve as bait of some kind, but all it really has to be is a pleasure to look at.

Candy, it turns out, goes with many different body parts. Nose candy is the oldest. Its hip days are past, but it had a fine insouciant sound back in the seventies and eighties, before cocaine became evil. It goes back much farther than that; Lighter records instances from the twenties. The phrase really doesn’t seem to have made it fully into the mainstream until the seventies, though. In theory it can refer to any snortable drug, but it would have been perverse to call anything other than cocaine “nose candy.” “Arm candy” debuted in the nineties, referring very specifically to a certain kind of escort: attractive but platonic. It has become a general term for any good-looking companion; now we may also use it to refer to watches, handbags, and jewelry, but at first it was strictly for people. It’s my rather vague understanding that “arm candy” is used far more often of women than men, but that may not be true. “Brain candy” may or may not be intellectually stimulating, says Urban Dictionary, but it is enjoyable either way. “Ear candy” is anything you want to listen to. For old men who really want to to live it up, how about “lap candy”? It’s for those nights when arm candy just isn’t enough.

“Nose candy” by chronological right ought to be a direct ancestor of the others, but it probably isn’t, since it is formed differently. Oh, I suppose “eye candy” means something pleasant to the eye and “nose candy” means something pleasant to the nose, at least if you go in for that sort of thing. But the point is, “nose candy” doesn’t confer the sort of sensory (olfactory, in this case) delight that the eye and ear extract from their candies. It does seem safe to say that “eye candy” is the progenitor of all those that have followed.

The progress of these different expressions is noteworthy because “candy” is a slippery term in our lexicon. According to our puritanical strain, candy is immoral in excess, insubstantial (fattening but not nourishing) and a little bit addictive, leading to bellyaches and cavities; it’s also associated with childishness. But we have a sybaritic side in the good ol’ U.S. of A., and in that hedonistic land candy is also the sweetest (and therefore most delightful) thing, and thanks to Terry Southern (and Mason Hoffenberg), as a name it augurs a girl both gorgeous and easy. Candy cuts both ways in our culture, and the same is true of its anatomical incarnations. “Eye candy” need not take a pejorative tone, but when it is applied to a person it almost always bears at least a tinge of contempt. (London’s Daily Mail reported in 1993 that “eye candy” was current slang for “bimbos” in Los Angeles.) But when it is applied to places or things, it need not come with a sneer or suggest that the object is otherwise useless or superficial. “Brain candy” has two distinct meanings, as noted above. “Arm candy” I would say is also double-edged; it can be used dismissively, or it can be a compliment. Arm candihood is not a permanent condition, anyway; you can be arm candy tonight and a go-getter executive tomorrow, or even a hard-working trophy wife. Some expressions just can’t shake those double meanings.

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