Turn a Blind Eye (Origin)

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Origin of the Saying "Turn a Blind Eye"?

The term "turn a blind eye" means to ignore something deliberately.
Turn a Blind Eye (Origin)

Examples of Use:

  • Most people turn a blind eye to the homeless people by the bus station.
  • The locals think the police turn a blind eye to marijuana use in the estate.
  • Tony's wife turns a blind eye to his flirting.
  • The instructors turn a blind eye to the students helping each other during the exams.
During the naval Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Admiral Horatio Nelson was leading the British fleet's attack against a Danish-Norwegian fleet. The Commanding Officer of the British fleet was Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. As the battle raged, the two admirals came to different assessments about how the battle was faring, and Hyde Parker sent a signal using flags for Nelson to disengage. Nelson, however, was convinced he could win and "turned a blind eye" to the flag signal, i.e., pretended not to see it. Of note, Nelson was literally blind in one eye, which gives credence to Nelson being the originator of the saying. A biography published 8 years later claimed that Nelson said the following:
  • [Putting the glass to his blind eye] "You know, Foley [Nelson's flag-captain], I have only one eye - and I have a right to be blind sometimes... I really do not see the signal."
While there is evidence that the term was used before the Battle of Copenhagen, it is probable that Nelson's story, given that he became a national hero, popularized the saying.

Of note, "turn a blind eye" is composed of monosyllabic words that run consonant-vowel-consonant-vowel. This gives the saying rhythm. It is also an example of assonance (repeated vowel sounds), which adds to the rhythm. These traits make "turn a blind eye" easy to say, which is also likely to be a factor in its popularity.

Competing Theory

The British author Francis Lathom used a similar term in 1800 (one year before Nelson) in his novel "Men and Manners." The following conversation is about the engagement of General Howitzer to Lady Gab, during which the General's glass eye accidentally fell out on to the table.
  • ...her ladyship and the general were engaged in a rubber, about three weeks ago, at the Viscountess of Loo's, the general's glass eye, by accident, fell upon the table.
    "Glass eye!" interrupted Lady Varny.
    "I only speak from report," returned he; "yes, a glass eye; and that her ladyship, who has an excellent taste for nic-nacories, was so charmed by its structure, that she immediately resolved on giving him her hand, for which he had long been a private suitor."
    "It is lucky for the poor man he has a blind eye to turn to her," cried Lady Varny.

Previous and Next Sayings

Test Your Knowledge of English Proverbs and Idioms

Ready for the Test?

More Proverbs, Sayings, and Idioms

Help Us To Improve Grammar Monster

  • Do you disagree with something on this page?
  • Did you spot a typo?
Next lesson >

See Also

What are idioms? What is figurative language? A list of common grammar errors A list of easily confused words A list of sayings and proverbs

Page URL