Idiom: Turn a blind eyeOED definition: Pretend not to noticeExample: Please, don’t turn a blind eye to what is happening
Blog in English Method To My Madness
Admiral Horatio Nelson is believed to have used this phrase during the battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Stories of this kind, related to historical figures, are often greatly exaggerated or completely made up. However, there is good evidence to suggest that Nelson did, in fact, coin this phrase.
During the battle of Copenhagen, Horatio Nelson lead the British Naval fleet against a joint Danish and Norwegian enemy. At the time, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker was the commander over the British fleet, and greatly disagreed with Nelson about the best ways in which to win the battle. At one point, Hyde Parker sent the signal (using flags) for Nelson and his troops to disengage and pull back from the enemy. Nelson disagreed though, and believed that he could lead them to victory if they persisted and held their ground. This therefore led Nelson to hold an eye glass up to his blind eye and state that he was unable to see any signal coming from his commander, which allowed him to continue with the fight.
Evidence for this theory comes from the biography, ‘Life of Nelson’, which was published just eight years later. The authors Clarke and M’Arthur claimed that Nelson’s actual words at the time were:
[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.”
The expression that is in use today was first recorded in ‘More letters from Martha Wilmot: impressions of Vienna, 1819-1829’. This work contained diary and journal extracts as a way to explain her experiences and opinions of the cosmopolitan city of Vienna during a period when it was the political and social capital of Europe. Wilmot is quoted as saying:
“turn a blind eye and a deaf ear every now and then, and we get on marvellously well.”
The way in which the phrase was used, suggests that it was in popular use and was well understood at the time.