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Turn a blind eye

Posted by ESC on March 30, 2001

In Reply to: Turn a blind eye posted by R. Berg on March 29, 2001

: : Where can I find confirmation that the origin of this expression is Admiral Nelson's action in disobeying the order from the flagship to disengage, by putting his eyeglass to his blind eye to read the message, only to go on to defeat the enemy.

: The article on Nelson in "The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea" mentions the event:

: The Tsar was assassinated and his policy reversed by his successor, Alexander I, but before the momentous news had become known, Nelson, with a detachment of ships of the fleet of comparatively light draught, attacked and defeated the Danish fleet at the hard-fought battle of Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. At a critical stage of the action, Hyde Parker signalled to the engaged portion of the fleet to break off the action, an order that Nelson refused even to see since, as he remarked, he had a blind eye and sometimes had a right to use it. To have obeyed Hyde Parker's signal at that moment would have been to court disaster, so critical was the squadron's position in shoal waters.

: However, the Oxf. Comp. doesn't say that "turn a blind eye" was the exact phrase that Nelson used; or that, if it was, he invented it; or that, whether he used it or not, it became popular after his remark was publicized. In fact, raising a telescope to one eye needn't involve turning the head. A biography of Nelson might have the exact quotation.

TURN A BLIND EYE - "To deliberately ignore something when you know it is going on. The expression is said to have been inspired by a famous incident at the Battle of Copenhagen. Admiral Nelson had been ordered by flag signal from his superior to halt the bombardment of enemy ships. He deliberately placed his telescope to his blind eye, ignored the order as if he had not seen it, and proceeded to win the day for England." From Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997)

TURN A BLIND EYE TO - "Overlook deliberately. This expression almost certainly originated in 1801, when Lord Nelson, then second in command of the English fleet, was besieging Copenhagen. He decided that his squadron should attack, but his lieutenant pointed out that the flagship had sent up signals to withdraw. Reluctant to obey this order and eager for a victory, Nelson, who had lost the sight of one eye at Calvi, put the telescope to his blind eye and said that he could see no such signal. He did attack, and the French were forced to surrender, a triumph in his career second only to the Battle of Trafalgar." From "Fighting Words: From War, Rebellion, and other Combative Capers" by Christine Ammer (NTC Publishing Group, Chicago, Ill., 1989, 1999).

See also: 'Turn a blind eye' - meaning and origin.