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Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson has been remembered as one of the greatest naval commanders in British history. Painting by Arthur William Devis. Source: Public domain

Admiral Nelson's Defiance Inspired the Saying “To Turn a Blind Eye”

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The expression “turning a blind eye” denotes the deliberate choice to ignore or overlook something, especially wrongdoing or undesirable information. While deeply ingrained within the English language, its origins remain somewhat elusive. Many attribute its origin to naval terminology, and the saying has been linked to the famed Admiral Nelson. Legend suggests that during the siege of Copenhagen in 1801, Nelson pretended not to see a withdrawal signal from his cautious superior by putting his telescope to his blind eye.

Nelson's Famed Act of Defiance at the Battle of Copenhagen

Admiral Horatio Nelson, a legendary British naval officer, is renowned for his strategic brilliance and leadership during the Napoleonic Wars. He is particularly revered for his victories at the Battle of the Nile and the Battle of Trafalgar.

In folk etymology, Admiral Nelson has also been linked to the phrase “to turn a blind eye” in relation to a particular episode related to the 1801 naval battle of Copenhagen. At the time, the British were fighting Denmark as part of the Napoleonic Wars, due to its alliance with Napoleon Bonaparte's France. By this point Nelson had lost his right eye during the siege of Calvi in 1794 when struck by debris during the heat of battle.

Amidst the Battle of Copenhagen, Admiral Nelson, at the helm of the British fleet, faced a critical moment when his superior Admiral Sir Hyde Parker signaled for retreat. However, recognizing the strategic importance of pressing the attack against Denmark, Nelson famously raised his telescope to his blind eye, declaring, “I see no ships.”

Lucky for him the British emerged victorious against Denmark, thanks to Nelson’s decisive action, and his superiors turned a blind eye to his insubordination. In naval terminology, “turning a blind eye” has come to signify a deliberate act of feigned ignorance or overlooking an offense, a behavior echoed in contemporary conflicts, particularly in relation to human rights abuses.

The 1801 Battle of Copenhagen in a painting by Christian Mølsted. It was here that folk etymology claims Admiral Nelson coined the phrase “to turn a blind eye.” (Public domain)

The 1801 Battle of Copenhagen in a painting by Christian Mølsted. It was here that folk etymology claims Admiral Nelson coined the phrase “to turn a blind eye.” (Public domain)

Did Admiral Nelson Really Coin the Saying “Turning a Blind Eye”?

While the notion that Admiral Nelson coined the phrase “to turn a blind eye” remains popular, historical evidence suggests otherwise. While Nelson's defiance at the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen is often cited as the origin, the phrase predates him by over a century.

In 1698, philosopher and clergyman John Norris used the expression “to turn the deaf ear and the blind eye,” in his 1698 philosophical and theological treatise entitled A Discourse of Walking by Faith. In this case, Norris employed it to illustrate the concept of indifference to worldly temptation. His work proves that the phrase existed long before Nelson’s era.

Top image: Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson has been remembered as one of the greatest naval commanders in British history. Painting by Arthur William Devis. Source: Public domain

By Cecilia Bogaard

 
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Cecilia

Cecilia Bogaard is one of the editors, researchers and writers on Ancient Origins. With an MA in Social Anthropology, and degree in Visual Communication (Photography), Cecilia has a passion for research, content creation and editing, especially as related to the... Read More

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