Famous Sayings: #81 — ‘Turn a Blind Eye’

September 29, 2017

The babysitter decided to turn a blind eye to the children who were staying up past their bedtime.

turn a blind eye, Horatio Nelson, famous sayings, Battle of Copenhagen, Nelsons eye
Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson decided to “turn a blind eye” to orders to retreat. Cropped Image of a painting by Lemuel Francis Abbott [Public domain]. You can view a version of the original at Wikimedia Commons.
While looking up the phrase “fall on deaf ears,” I came across this related term. Originally, I thought about incorporating this term into that post, but I soon realized the nuances in both, along with their distinctive origins.

What Does It Mean When Someone Decides to ‘Turn a Blind Eye’?

When someone turns a blind eye to something, they deliberately “look away” or ignore what’s going on. Oftentimes, this happens when someone else is breaking a rule or law and the first person, who may have the power to stop the other one if only by speaking up, chooses to do nothing.

Who Is the Source of the Phrase ‘Turn a Blind Eye’?

My first stop was The Phrase Finder, where I love visiting. I also visited other sites for more information.

Immediately in his entry about this phrase, Gary Martin pointed out that it came from Admiral Horatio Nelson, a man who had use of only one eye. His eye was blinded during an earlier battle (Ammer).

It looks like Nelson was corrected attributed with this phrase, because a version of it appeared his 1809 biography, Life of Nelson, written with the help of M’Arthur.

[Putting the glass to his blind eye] “You know, Foley, I have only one eye — and I have a right to be blind Sometimes … I really do not see the signal.”

In the book, they recalled the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, when Nelson disobeyed the orders of his superior, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, the commander of the British Fleet. Vice Admiral Nelson was in charge of the HMS Elephant.

As the British lost more and more ships against the joint Danish and Norwegian fleet, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker decided that the best course of action was for his fleet to retreat. Hyde Parker gave a signal (via the use of flags) to disengage. However, Nelson, who was confident he could win, led the attack while ignoring Hyde Parker’s signal. After a few hours, Nelson’s group emerged victorious, and turned the tide of the battle.

The phrase as we know it can be found in More Letters from Martha Wilmot: Impressions of Vienna, 1819-1829, which was reprinted in 1935. Ms. Wilmot wrote the phrase in a letter she sent in 1823.

“turn a blind eye and a deaf ear every now and then, and we get on marvelously well.”

Was Nelson’s Story Real?

While Martin cautioned that many stories like Nelson’s tend to be tall tales, he said it wasn’t the case here.

However, According to Evan Andrews at History.com, historians dispute the efficacy of the story. Regardless, there is proof of the origin of the phrase.

Did You Know?

There is another term that developed in connection to “turn a blind eye.”

At The Hindu, S. Upendran answers a few questions from readers. The first question, posed by K. Anantha Ramana, from Kurnool:

What is the meaning and origin of ‘turn a Nelson’s eye’?

Upendran went on to explain that “Nelson’s eye” meant the same thing as “turn a blind eye,” since the former was named after the man attributed with the latter.

Works Cited

Ammer, Christine. “turn a blind eye to.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms. Houghton Mifflin Company. 29 Sep. 2017. <Dictionary.com <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/turn-a-blind-eye-to>.

Martin, Gary. “Turn a blind eye.” The Phrase  Finder. Web. Retrieved 19 May 2017. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/turn-a-blind-eye.html>.

“turn a blind eye (to something) (phrase) American English definition and synonyms.” Macmillan Dictionary. Web. Retrieved 29 Sept 2017. <http://www.macmillandictionary.com/us/dictionary/american/turn-a-blind-eye-to-something>.

“‘Turn a Blind Eye | Phrase Definition, Origin, & Examples.” Ginger Software. Web. Retrieved 29 Sept 2017. <http://www.gingersoftware.com/content/phrases/turn-a-blind-eye/#.Wc7U3Y9SzIU>.

Upendran, S. “Know Your English: Meaning and origin of ‘turn a Nelson’s eye.’” The Hindu. 31 Oct 2011. Web. Retrieved 29 Sept 2017. <http://www.thehindu.com/books/know-your-english/know-your-english-meaning-and-origin-of-turn-a-nelsons-eye/article2586505.ece>.

Hrala, Josh. “The Badass Origin Story of the Phrase ‘Turn a Blind Eye.’” Modern Notion. 16 Sept 2015. Web. Retrieved 29 Sept 2017. <http://modernnotion.com/the-badass-origin-story-of-the-phrase-turn-a-blind-eye/>.

Andrews, Evan. “10 Common Sayings With Historical Origins.” History.com. A+E Networks. 23 Apr 2013. Web. Retrieved 29 Sept 2017. <http://www.history.com/news/history-lists/10-common-sayings-with-historical-origins>.


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