Famous Sayings: #62 — ‘Fall on Deaf Ears’

May 19, 2017

Sometimes it seems like all her warnings will only fall on deaf ears.

fall on deaf ears, turn a deaf ear, famous sayings
“La-la-la-la-la, I can’t hear you!” Photo by Christopher Blizzard via Flickr. The photo was cropped and used under the Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

I had this phrase lined up for this week for a while now, and recent events have made this a timely choice.

But first, let’s get into the meaning of this phrase.


What Does ‘Fall on Deaf Ears’ Mean?

I consulted numerous sources in order to find the origin, but most only offered their own take on the meaning of the phrase.

From the Macmillan Dictionary, I found this:

if something such as a warning, a request, or an attempt to change someone’s attitude falls on deaf ears, it is completely ignored by the person who hears it

The definition is exactly the same for the American British and versions.

Here’s a definition I found on Merriam-Webster:

1 :  to fail to be heard :  to be ignored <Her pleas for mercy fell on deaf ears.>

I mainly agree with the first definition posted. Normally, when something “falls on deaf ears,” it is a warning or a key bit of advice. Just like the little one plugging her ears in the picture, people tend to avoid listening to things (which might be hard to hear, take them away from a narrative, or impede one’s plans).


When Did This Phrase Originate?

I consulted another online dictionary and found two versions of the phrase:

fall on deaf ears

Be ignored or disregarded, as in Any advice we give them about remodelingseems to fall on deaf ears. This expression transfers physical inability tohear to someone who does not want to listen. [1400s ]

turn a deaf ear

Refuse to listen, as in You can plead all day but he’s turning a deaf ear to everyone . This expression dates from the first half of the 1400s and was in most proverb collections from 1546 on.

So, it turns out the phrase as we know it might have been as far back as the 15th century.

Scorpio Tales seems to verify this information. The website has a collection of sayings. I found this on the page of sayings that begin with the letter F. From the text, I found the following information:

  • The phrase “deaf ears” was recorded as early as the 15th
  • However, there are numerous examples of people refused to hear something (playing deaf) in the Bible. One example is in Psalm 58, when describing the wicked.
  • The phrase as we know it was in wide use in the 19th century, but the alternative “turn a deaf ear” was in wide use during the 18th

The page on Scorpio Tales also mentioned “Dingley and Brent” by Jonathan Swift. But of course, I wanted to look at the sources mentioned myself.

The Bible

I looked at Psalms 58, but I have quoted verses 3-5 for context:

3The wicked are estranged from the womb: they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies.

4Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;

5Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.

Jonathan Swift

Here are the words to the poem “Dingley and Brent” (1724) by Jonathan Swift, described as “a song to the tune of ‘Ye Commons and Peers’”:

DINGLEY and Brent,
Wherever they went,
Ne’er minded a word that was spoken;
Whatever was said,
They ne’er troubled their head,
But laugh’d at their own silly joking.
Should Solomon wise
In Majesty rise,
And show them his wit and his learning;
They never would hear,
But turn the deaf ear,
As a matter they had no concern in.
You tell a good jest,
And please all the rest;
Comes Dingley, and asks you, what was it?
And, curious to know, Away she will go
To seek and old rag in the closet.


What Made Me Think of This Phrase?

Current events remind me of this phrase, of course. But there are numerous examples in daily life when people fail to heed warnings or listen to contradictory information.

One example I want to talk about is net neutrality. On Thursday, the Republican-led FCC voted 2-1 to gut net neutrality rules established during the Obama administration. There is a 90-day period for the commission to take comments from the public before the final vote in August.

Now, it should be obvious that this commission will vote to kill the Internet as we know it despite what the public wants. According to a recent poll, 61% of registered voters in the U.S. support the Obama-era rule. But that has not stopped Ajit Pai from turning a deaf ear to what the public wants and pushing through with this industry-supported dismantling.

Recently, David Bray issued a statement which said that the FCC’s commenting system was “hit” by bots and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. However, he offered no proof or explanation for coming to that conclusion. And Pai is using this as an “excuse” to go through with gutting net neutrality.

As Mitch Stoltz at the Electronic Frontier Foundation pointed out, the public comment period is important to holding “independent” organizations like the FCC accountable since the commissioners are unelected. But if the commission won’t do all it can to protect that system, it will never be held accountable outside of congressional intervention.

Some Democrats in Congress have promised to make this a campaign issue if the FCC goes through with such an insidious plan. I sincerely hope the Democrats do, because this is such an important issue for small businesses, schools, hospitals, and private citizens.

But sometimes, I feel like this issue will only fall on deaf ears.


Works Cited

Compiled by Roscoe, Thomas. The Works of Jonathan Swift. Containing Interesting and Valuable Papers, Not Hitherto Published. Henry Washbourne. London; 1841. Print. Page 690. Retrieved 19 May 2017.

“Expressions & Sayings (F).” Scorpio Tales. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/sayingsf.htm>.

Fall On Deaf Ears | Definition of Fall On Deaf Ears by Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fall%20on%20deaf%20ears>.

“Fall on deaf ears | Definition of fall on deaf ears at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/fall–on–deaf–ears>.

“fall on deaf ears (phrase) American definition and synonyms.” Macmillan Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017.  <http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/fall-on-deaf-ears>.

“fall on deaf ears (phrase) definition and synonyms.” Macmillan Dictionary. Web. <http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/british/fall-on-deaf-ears>.

Neidig, Harper. “Cable industry poll: Majority support net neutrality rules.” The Hill. 11 May 2017. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <http://thehill.com/policy/technology/332948-cable-industry-poll-majority-support-net-neutrality-rules>.

“PSALMS CHAPTER 58 KLV.” King James Bible Online. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Psalms-Chapter-58/>.

Selyukh, Alina. “FCC Votes To Begin Rollback Of Net Neutrality Regulations.” NPR. 18 May 2017. Web. <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/18/528941897/fcc-votes-to-begin-rollback-of-net-neutrality-regulations>.

Stoltz, Mitch. “The FCC Needs to Cut Through the Noise and Listen to the Public’s Support for Net Neutrality.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. 17 May 2017. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2017/05/fcc-needs-cut-through-noise-and-listen-publics-support-net-neutrality>.

“Turn a deaf ear | Definition of turn a deaf ear at Dictionary.com.” Dictionary.com. Web. <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/turn-a-deaf-ear>.

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