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The meaning and origin of the expression: A nod is as good as a wink

A nod is as good as a wink


What's the meaning of the phrase 'A nod is as good as a wink'?

'A nod is as good as a wink' expresses the idea that, to a person who is ready to understand or undertake something, any subtle signalling of it is sufficient. The context is usually of some undertaking that is borderline illegal or of sexual innuendo.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A nod is as good as a wink'?

This proverbial saying sounds as if it might be quite modern but it is in fact a 16th century phrase originating in England. The longer version of the phrase is 'a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse'. It might seem that this is just an elaboration of the shorter version, but it appears that the 'blind horse' version was in fact the original. The earliest examples of the proverb in print all give the fuller version, for example, in William Goodall's ballad opera The False Guardians Outwitted, 1740:

And therefore I must say this for myself, that, if they are a small Matter too bashful, I am not extremely dull of Apprehension; and a Nod is as good as a Wink to a blind Horse.

Blind horses weren't useful for the usual equine tasks but were often used where their disability wasn't an issue - to walk in circles driving drive mill wheels for example.

It seems intuitive to interpret the longer version as meaning 'neither a nod nor a wink has any purpose, both being equally pointless'. Nevertheless, the context of the early uses has it being used with the same apparent meaning as the short version, that is, 'you may nod or wink - I will take your meaning either way'.

During the 19th century the expression began to be shortened and the blind horse was left at home. Citations from that period use the form 'a nod is as good as a wink etc.', which clearly indicates that the later usage was simply a shorthand way of writing the original.

A nod's as good as a wink to a blind horseMore recently, the expression has gained currency in the form of "a nod is as good as a wink to a blind bat", which Eric Idle used in his 'Nudge, nudge' sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus. The character Idle played was a nonsense-talking fool who came out with a string of meaningless innuendos. Of course, Idle was deliberately making an incorrect allusion to the 'a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse' expression, in order to emphasize the idiocy of the character he was playing.

The choice of bat was knowing, as bats are generally regarded as blind and so calling the creature a blind bat emphasized the ridiculousness of the character's gabble... and, before anyone writes in, I know that bats aren't really blind.

See also: the List of Proverbs.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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