Idiom of the week: turn a blind eye

By McKenna Teigland /// Staff Writer

Words are weird. The English language in particular is pretty strange, what with its homophones, linguistic caveats, and the infuriating confusion that arises when contemplating the way an effect can affect something. It is not surprising, then, that sometimes when we string together a bunch of these words with their connotation baggage, unusual things may happen; that’s where idioms come in. Take, for example, the common phrase: to turn a blind eye.

Allegedly, some British military bloke was blind in one eye and was told to stop attacking some Danish ships. So this Brit puts a telescope up to his blind eye and goes, “Nah, man. I don’t see anything.” He keeps fighting….and wins. And I think that that’s a great story. But here’s the thing: that’s not how I would approach this idiom if I knew absolutely nothing about our American colloquial use of it.

If I were to hear the phrase “turn a blind eye” for the first time ever, I would imagine someone trying to literally swivel their blind eye so that it was facing the back of their skull. Now, imagine if you thought this too, and then said so in the middle of a conversation where your friend said the idiom in passing: “So I was, like, at this party last night and Chris’s old roommate was there, and he just turned a blind eye and ignored him. As he was eating all of the chips and dip. And he wasn’t even invited.”  

Anyone can articulate a phrase, but what allows a phrase to be inducted into a colloquial language that spans continents is something else entirely. Slang actually behaves in much the same way, but that is a different conversation for another time.

What we understand this to mean is that Chris ignored his ex-roommate eating all of the chips and dip. What you think she means, though, is that Chris is blind, and upon seeing his ex-roommate eating all of the chips and dip, proceeded to roll his blind eye around in its socket.

Or maybe you picture some British military guy being a smart-alec about his blindness. Or maybe you’ve stopped reading this article by this point and are off huffing glue. I don’t know; I’m not you. My point is, words are weird, and idioms are bizarre, and perhaps somewhat cruel. And I love them. What is particularly fascinating, though, is how idioms come to be. Anyone can articulate a phrase, but what allows a phrase to be inducted into a colloquial language that spans continents is something else entirely. Slang actually behaves in much the same way, but that is a different conversation for another time.

 
So, don’t turn a blind eye to words and phrases. In fact, keep your ears open, too. Maybe one day you will be the first person to hear the coinage of a new idiom.

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