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Wikipedia reports, of Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl”:

Originally titled “Brown-Skinned Girl,” Morrison changed it to “Brown Eyed Girl” when he recorded it. . . . It has also been stated that the song was about an inter-racial relationship and Morrison changed the title to “make it more palatable to radio stations.”

I know that musicians sometimes use eye color as a euphemism for race. For example, blue-eyed soul is often used to refer to white musicians covering or performing in the style of African-American music. I also know that it’s not universal, as shown by counterexamples like “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”

Are the brown eyes in “Brown Eyed Girl” code for an interracial relationship? If so, what’s the etymology? Is it original to that song, or was it already a widespread usage?

  • While I don’t mind the addition of the van-morrison tag, I want to note that I am more interested in whether the phrase has a well-established meaning (and its etymology/history) than the specific meaning of this one song. – Bradd Szonye Mar 19 '15 at 0:04
  • As for usage in lyrics, you could compare examples of Lyrics containing the term: brown eyed girl vs. *Lyrics containing the term: blue eyed girl but I don't see any correlation with race. Probably it is just what the lyricist envisioned. – user3169 Mar 19 '15 at 4:36
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The use of 'brown-eyed' as a euphemism for race is certainly older than "Brown-Eyed Girl": it was famously used in Chuck Berry's 1956 song "Brown Eyed Handsome Man". A Britannica article attributes the phrase to Berry ("his own segregation-era euphemism") though it sounds like it could potentially be older. However, 'brown-eyed' as a racial euphemism doesn't appear in any major slang dictionaries that I've checked.

The euphemism possibly also appears in Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times" (1969):

"Good Times, Bad Times, you know I had my share; when my woman left home for a brown eyed man, well, I still don't seem to care.".

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I believe you answered your own question; the song was modified from Brown-Skinned Girl to make it more palatable for radio stations. This implies that a typical listener wouldn't automatically draw a connection between the color of the described girl's eyes and the color of her skin, else the entire point of the name change would be nil. Whereas a song about a romance with a black woman faced issues in that time period, a song about a woman with brown eyes can be used to depict a woman of any skin color, regardless of whether or not this was a common euphemism of the time.

  • If you changed the word “toilet” to “restroom” to make it more palatable to the general public, everyone would still know what you meant. That’s the point of a euphemism. – Bradd Szonye Mar 25 '15 at 19:35
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I'm going to say the answer is "No". In Van Morrison's case, to be honest, "Brown-Skinned Girl" doesn't flow as nicely as "Brown-Eyed Girl". Considering how poetic the vast majority of his lyrics are, I'd bet my house that the change had nothing to do with race, if it was ever changed at all.

As far as "Blue-Eyed Soul", that term was coined because of the fact that whites have blue eyes and blacks don't. Well, unless they have Waardenburg syndrome or some other genetic mutation, which only occurs in roughly 1/40,000 blacks. So, "Blue-Eyed" isn't as much a euphamism as a statement of fact. If you are a blue-eyed soul singer, chances are pretty good that you're white.

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