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.

Yet more adventures in anachronistic phrases

This subject keeps cropping up for me: the problem of avoiding anachronistic phrases in historical novels. Here are two more.

I can't have my characters describe something as sandwiched between two other things. Lord Sandwich is yet to make his contribution to the culinary arts.

Nor can a character look daggers at someone else. It comes, slightly mangled, from Hamlet, where Hamlet promises to speak daggers.

Anachronistic Phrases

Anachronisms are things placed out of kilter with respect to time. It’s unlikely many Roman chariot racers wore a wristwatch, to pick a famous example. It is (relatively) easy to avoid anachronistic objects like wristwatches.

A more insidious problem is anachronistic phrases: set piece sayings heard every day in modern life and embedded in our DNA, but which you could not possibly hear from a story character.

The knowledge that I will be flayed alive by my readers if they find one causes me to be cautious about the stock phrases that come so easily to the fingertips. Since I am writing in Classical Greece, you shouldn’t expect to hear too much Shakespeare from my characters. No problem, you think? All I have to do is avoid phrases like, "To be, or not to be," and, "Friends, Romans, countrymen?" Think again. The number of routine, daily phrases originating with Shakespeare is mindboggling.

There can be no method in my madness. I can't play fast and loose with my characters, stand on ceremony or make a virtue of necessity. My hero may be a tower of strength, but I daren't say so, or I'll be in a pickle. My victims may be dead as a doornail as the result of foul play, but it's a forgone conclusion I'll be a laughing stock if any of these phrases slip past me into a book.

I am not allowed to use a single one of them, neither those, nor many more. It's enough to make a writer wish the ms would vanish into thin air so he could wash his hands of the whole thing and say good riddance to the problem.

Alright, wash his hands is biblical, but don't get me started on that one, because those common phrases are forbidden too.

Ironically, I can't even say it's all Greek to me.

The subtlety of this goes beyond your wildest nightmares. Here’s my favorite example. I love this example, it really takes the cake.

There it is: that takes the cake!

No, it’s not Shakespeare. It’s Aristophanes. He invented the phrase for his play The Knights, which he wrote in 424B.C. to satirize the Athenian politician Cleon. My stories begin in 460B.C. Out by 44 years. As Maxwell Smart would say, missed by that much! ...damn, I can’t use that one either.