Turn a blind eye
Posted: 10 March 2010 08:40 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I was finishing up Sharpe’s Prey by Bernard Cornwell last night.  In one of the final chapters Cornwell indicates that the phrase “turn a blind eye” comes from Nelson’s famous decision to continue the bombardment of Copenhagen, despite being ordered to cease fire, by placing his telescope to his blind eye, and declaring that he could not see the signal.  I wondered if this is the true origin of the phrase.

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Posted: 10 March 2010 09:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The OED2 hints that it is, but doesn’t come out and say so. The first two cites under eye, n.1, 5.e.:

[1809 CLARKE & M’ARTHUR Life of Nelson II. III. iii. 270 Putting the glass to this blind eye, he [sc. Nelson] exclaimed, I really do not see the signal.] 1823 M. WILMOT Let. 1 Oct. (1935) 197, I turn a blind eye and a deaf ear every now and then, and we get on marvellously well.

The brackets indicate that the citation is not of the actual phrase, but a similar appearance of the same words. From deaf ear in the 1823 cite, it appears that something else might be at work though.

And to be pedantic, it was not a “bombardment of Copenhagen.” During the attack on the Danish fleet which was anchored off Copenhagen, Admiral Hyde Parker, who was in overall command but could not fully see the progress of the battle due to gun smoke, feared that Nelson, who was leading the attack, might be losing but be unwilling to withdraw without orders. So he gave the signal to withdraw knowing full well that Nelson would disregard it if he were winning. Nelson, recognizing that he was on the verge of a decisive victory, acknowledged receipt of Parker’s signal but continued to order his ships to engage the enemy, eventually destroying the Danish fleet. It was not so much a case of disobeying an order as it was two commanders who understood each other well enough to “read between the lines” of the signals and deduce the true intent of the order. The bit about the blind eye and the telescope was Nelson joking to his flag captain.

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Posted: 10 March 2010 11:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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But at Googlebooks, I found this in a novel published the year before the battle of Copenhagen (Men and Manners by Francis Lathom, 1800, Vol. I, p. 227):

“ Why,” replied Sir Harry, “ the world is ill-natured enough to say, that as 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, “ she paints like a sign-post;...”

(bolding added)

Although the construction is not an exact match, it seems to imply the existence of the phrase “turn a blind eye”.

(edited to correct typo)

[ Edited: 10 March 2010 11:50 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 10 March 2010 11:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Dave Wilton - 10 March 2010 09:09 AM

And to be pedantic…

True.  I said “bombardment” when I meant “battle”.  The setting of the book is the bombardment of Copenhagen, which took place in 1807, and the reference in the book is to the earlier 1801 naval battle.

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Posted: 10 March 2010 01:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Although the construction is not an exact match, it seems to imply the existence of the phrase “turn a blind eye”.

Indeed it does, satisfyingly supporting my initial conviction that the Nelson thing had to be an urban legend.

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Posted: 11 March 2010 06:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I remember reading that Nelson’s last words “Kiss me, Hardy” were in fact not homoerotic or whatever but Kismet etc:

“The later story, that Nelson’s last words were “Kismet [fate] Hardy”, aren’t supported by any contemporary evidence. In fact, ‘kismet’ isn’t recorded as being in use in English to mean fate until as late as 1830, a quarter of a century after Nelson died. That euphemistic version of events is thought to be a later invention that attempted to avoid embarrassment by covering up the supposed homo-erotic imagery of men kissing. That was misguided in more ways than one, not least because platonic kisses between men at times of great emotion weren’t viewed in the way in 19th century England.” (http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/kiss%20me%20hardy.html)

Sounds convincing as long as on the cheek?

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Posted: 11 March 2010 07:04 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Indeed it does, satisfyingly supporting my initial conviction that the Nelson thing had to be an urban legend.

While we can’t be certain that it did happen, there is reasonable evidence (accounts written not long after the battle) that Nelson did in fact make some kind of comment about being blind and perhaps even putting the telescope to his eye patch. It is a great morale-boosting line and Nelson was a great commander, apt to say such things. Accounts of other commanders doing and saying similar things under fire are legion. So we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss it.

If you mean that this being the origin of the phrase is false, well yes; it clearly is not the origin.

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Posted: 11 March 2010 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dave Wilton - 11 March 2010 07:04 AM

… putting the telescope to his eye patch…

Sorry to be picky, but he didn’t have an eye patch. (That IS an urban legend …)

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Posted: 11 March 2010 01:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Sorry to be picky, but he didn’t have an eye patch. (That IS an urban legend …)

You are correct. He had lost the sight of his eye after a cutlass blow to the head, presumably resulting in detached retina; there was no wound to the eye itself, and therefore no need to cover it. At sea he did wear a green eye shade attached to his cocked hat; at least some of these shades were lovingly home-made for him by Emma Hamilton. But no eye patch!

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Posted: 11 March 2010 05:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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If you mean that this being the origin of the phrase is false, well yes; it clearly is not the origin.

Yes, that’s what I meant.  I thought that’s what we were talking about.

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Posted: 12 March 2010 05:03 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Might interest you to know that a score of 111 in cricket is a Nelson, 222 is a double Nelson etc. It is supposedly because Nelson had “1 eye, 1 arm, 1 leg”, though I am pretty sure he always had two legs.

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Posted: 12 March 2010 06:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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OP Tipping - 12 March 2010 05:03 AM

Might interest you to know that a score of 111 in cricket is a Nelson … It is supposedly because Nelson had “1 eye, 1 arm, 1 leg”

I always thought it was another part of his anatomy being referred to for the final “one” …

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Posted: 12 March 2010 04:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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55.5, I suppose, would be a half-Nelson.

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Posted: 19 September 2011 07:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Reviving this old thread, I note in Google Books “Practical Discourses on Divine Subjects” by John Norris, volume three, third edition printed in 1707.  On page 136, in the essay “A Discourse of Walking by Faith”, is a discussion of the advantages of walking by faith:

“To be Crucify’d to the World, and to have the World Crucify’d to us, to be dead to its Pleasures, and insensible of its Charms, to turn the deaf Ear, and the blind Eye, to all those Pomps and and Vanities of the World which we renounc’d at our Baptism, and to have it no longer in our Hearts, but under our Feet.”

This seems to me exactly on point, and nearly a century before the phrase’s supposed Nelsonian origin.

Beside the point, but referring to Dave’s interpretation of Parker’s signal and Nelson’s reaction, this is far from the only possible interpretation.  The most straightforward interpretation is that Parker lost his nerve and meant the order.  Since Nelson went on to victory, there was no official reaction to his insubordination.  Had he lost, he likely would have been court martialed.  My impression of the relationship between Nelson and Parker (or between Nelson and anyone place in command over him) is not consistent with their being in such sympathy as to allow such implicit weight be added to the explicit messages of signal flags.

I have also seen the claim that the tactical situation made it impossible for Nelson to disengage and suicidal to try.

Less plausibly, I have also seen the suggestion that Parker got word mid-battle of the assassination of Tsar Paul of Russia, which changed the political situation in the Baltic and made the attack on Copenhagen unnecessary.  In this scenario he wanted to end the battle immediately to avoid further losses and to improve subsequent relations with the Danes.  I don’t buy this interpretation.  There is no direct evidence for it, it requires a remarkable coincidence of timing, and it requires Parker to act decisively--and perhaps irreversibly--on unconfirmed information.  But the notion is out there.

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Posted: 19 September 2011 07:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Well, that ought to put the final nail in the c̶o̶f̶f̶i̶n̶ cask of that tail.

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Posted: 20 September 2011 04:57 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Do let the OED know about that splendid antedate!

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