Turning a blind eye to anachronism

In my continuing series on the dangers of anachronism, today's trap for young players is to turn a blind eye.

It's rare that such a common phrase can be pinpointed to a precise moment in time, and a precise man.

It happened at the Battle of Copenhagen. The British were commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and under him, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson. Nelson had an unfortunate tendency to lose spare body parts. By the time of Copenhagen he was missing an arm and an eye. The missing eye proved to be a decisive advantage in the battle.

Parker and Nelson had split their forces for a two pronged attack: Nelson to attack the Danes directly and Parker to block Swedish support. The wind turned against Parker, but took Nelson into the waiting Danes. The Danes, commanded by the Crown Prince, put up a furious and highly creditable fight. The cannon fire at close range between ships of the line was intense and deadly.

Parker could only listen to the battle and, fearing that Nelson was having the worse of it, raised the signal on his flagship for Nelson to disengage. Parker explained his reason thus: "If he [Nelson] is in a condition to continue the action successfully, he will disregard it; if he is not, it will be an excuse for his retreat and no blame can be imputed to him."

Parker was a fine man, but an indecisive leader. He had abdicated all responsibility as commanding officer present, and what more, if Nelson continued the battle in the face of the order to disengage and subsequently lost, then it would be Nelson's fault.

When the disengage order was pointed out to him, Nelson ordered the acknowledgement flag be flown, but also ordered to remain in place his own signal flag to engage the enemy closely. Thus Nelson took full responsibility for the continued attack.

By the terms of warfare at that time, it was a capital offence for a subordinate to flagrantly disregard a direct order. But in the fog of war -- and it really was a fog in those days with all the cannon smoke -- it was relatively common for a signal order to be missed.

The only problem was, Nelson's flag captain had seen Admiral Parker's signal and pointed it out to his boss.

Nelson solved the problem with these words:

‘You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes’. He then put his telescope to his blind eye, and said ‘I really do not see the Signal!’

And so for the first time in history, someone had turned a blind eye to something he didn't like.

Turn a blind eye appears in literature only after the Battle of Copenhagen, so Nelson was almost certainly the source.

It raises a problem for the humble historical writer. Is it reasonable for a character to use the phrase prior to 1801?

The conceit is that we are reading in modern, everyday English, what was spoken 2,500 years ago in modern, everyday Attic Greek. I think of it as like "translating" an ancient text. To turn a blind eye references a well known event in 1801, no one in Classical Athens would have used it, and therefore it's not acceptable ancient usage.


Carrie Clevenger said...

I think you're bringing up good points here. Truth is, I don't think very many others actually did all this research. These are good things to keep in mind. Great history lesson Gary!

Lexi said...

I remember worrying over whether I could use the expression 'brainwave' in my fantasy set in an alternate Middle Ages. My daughter advised for it, in view of the entirely modern speech my characters use - the whole novel is recklessly anachronistic. But your attitude is undoubtedly the correct one in any historical work of fiction.

(Why was Foley's remark a problem when Nelson had had an acknowledgement flag raised already?)

Gary Corby said...

You're right, Lexi, I didn't describe that well.

In a subsequent court-martial, if any, the evidence of the flag captain would have been of overriding importance, whereas no one would listen to what the signal officer had to say (and indeed an acknowledgement might, in theory, have been hoisted to a misread signal).

The fact that Foley knew perfectly well that Nelson understood the order but disregarded it therefore mattered a lot.

You're right I couldn't use brainwave! But for my time the equivalent to, "I had a brainwave," would be something like, "a daemon whispered in my ear."

Gary Corby said...

Hi Carrie! I haven't the least doubt I've got anachronistic phrases in the books that I've failed to spot. But at least I've weeded out some. The line between okay and not is a trifle fuzzy.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

I do my "level best" to avoid all anachronisms-or at least any that are wrong for the time frame.

On occasion I have used expressions that would convey the meaning to the reader, though a true bibliophile would know them to be anachronistic-I did use "mesmerized" in a short fantasy tale once just because hypnotized and betwitched just weren't quite right.

As a rule though for anything historical I avoid anachronistic phrases.

Gary Corby said...

Hi David! How's the book going?

I confess I don't know the origin of "level best". Is it something obscure and interesting?

Loretta Ross said...

I wonder if you are familiar with Patience Worth? I only think of her(?) because lately I've been very busy refurbishing my website and I did a page on her as a Missouri anomaly. Basically, in 1913 a St. Louis housewife named Pearl Curran, a woman with only a grade school education and no outstanding life experiences, sat down at a ouija board and started recieving messages from a spirit named Patience Worth. (There'a a point to this connected to your post, I promise!)

Patience, who claimed to have been a seventeenth century English woman who emigrated to America and was killed by Indians, spent the next 24 years dictating an enormous body of literature to Curran. This included seven books which were published to the kind of reviews I'd just about kill for.

The most famous of her novels, a 355,000 word epic of the last days of Christ called The Sorry Tale was, according to a scholar who studied it, written in 17th century English with no anachronisms. In 355,000 words, there wasn't a single word that entered the English language after 1700.

I have no explanation for this, btw. It just gives me the creeps.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Loretta, no I hadn't heard of Patience Worth before. I just did some quick reading. It does look a bit odd on the face of it, but I'm somewhat skeptical because (a) apparently another of the Patience novels is set in Victorian times, and (b) apparently the person who made the no anachronisms claim was already promoting Patience. Still, it looks to me like Pearl Curran was genuine in her belief that she was in contact with Patience.

Loretta Ross said...

I wasn't aware that the person who made the "no anachronisms" claim was promoting her already. That does cast doubt on his objectivity. Still, it's a very odd story. I'd almost like to see it explained away, if only because I'm jealous of her reviews. *G*

nephite blood spartan heart said...


I could be wrong but am pretty sure it would be related to Masonry and thus should not be used before a reasonable time frame related to the Lodges.

The book is doing pretty good I think for a brand new no-name with no advertising budget-thanks for asking-reviews in blogland have been good.

Gary Corby said...

David, now that you mention it, a Masonic origin does seem rather likely, doesn't it? But then, Masonic Lodges I think might be distantly descended from mediaeval guilds, so who knows?

Glad to hear about the book!