'Turn a Blind Eye': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on December 21, 2023

Have you ever heard the expression 'turn a blind eye'? If so, you might have wondered what it meant. Well, then, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll learn the meaning of this popular idiom, its origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

We'll cover all of that and more, but if you just want the short version, here it is:

  • To turn a blind eye means to deliberately ignore something that's going on, even though you know it is wrong.  

What Does 'Turn a Blind Eye' Mean?

'Turn a blind eye' is actually an idiom, which means it can't be interpreted literally. Idioms are groups of words used to express a concept that only makes sense as a whole; the meaning can't be deciphered by looking at the terms separately. That's right, there's no actual turning of eyes involved here.

  • To turn a blind eye means to ignore or deliberately overlook something, typically something that is wrong or questionable. When someone turns a blind eye to a situation, they are choosing not to acknowledge it or take any action, often because it may be more convenient or easier to ignore it.

You can turn a blind eye to a behavior or a situation, and it could be a one-off, or it could be ongoing. But you might be wondering, why would someone turn a blind eye? Well, sometimes it might be because they don't want to deal with it. Other times, it might be because it serves their agenda to ignore it. Or it might just be that you don't think it's such a big deal.

Imagine, for example, that you're a teacher, and your students are passing around notes in class. Normally you would ask them to stop, but they're very well-behaved apart from this one thing. Plus, they're not actually being disruptive by passing around notes.

You might tell your colleague:

They pass around notes oin class but I turn a blind eye because apart from that, they're very well-behaved and talented students.   

One more thing to note is that because this idiom contains a verb ('turn'), you can use it in its other forms, too.

This includes but is not limited to:

Where Does 'Turn a Blind Eye' Come From?

The exact origin of the phrase "turn a blind eye" is not definitively known, but it is believed to have maritime origins.

One popular theory is that it originated with Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. As the story goes, during the battle, Nelson received a signal from his superior officer to disengage from the enemy. However, Nelson, who had lost an eye in a previous battle, deliberately raised his telescope to his blind eye and claimed not to see the signal, continuing the engagement and ultimately achieving victory.

The phrase is often associated with this story, suggesting that turning a blind eye means choosing to ignore something intentionally, just as Nelson ignored the signal by using his blind eye. However, it's important to note that the exact historical accuracy of this origin story is debated, and the phrase may have been in use before this incident.

For instance, the 1800 novel Men and Manners by Francis Lathom used this idiom in the following passage:

"It is lucky for the poor man he has a blind eye to turn to her," cried Lady Varny. 

This seems to prove the idiom was in use before the aforementioned 1801 battle, leading us to wonder whether Nelson ever actually uttered those words at all.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it. I'll include examples of the other verb forms, too, such as the present participle, past indefinite, future simple, and third-person singular.

The teacher usually turns a blind eye to the students passing notes in class because they are generally well-behaved.

The company was aware of the safety violations in the factory but chose to turn a blind eye to them in order to cut costs.

The police officer turned a blind eye to the illegal activities of the local gang.

The manager couldn't turn a blind eye to the employee's constant tardiness anymore and had to issue a warning.

Despite the rules against cheating, some coaches stll get caught turning a blind eye to their athletes using performance-enhancing drugs. 

The government was criticized for turning a blind eye to the pollution problems in the city.

The parents realized they couldn't continue to turn a blind eye to their child's behavioral issues and sought professional help.

The employees know that if the new manager develops a friendly relationship with them, it's likely that he will turn a blind eye to minor infractions of the office dress code.

The neighbors chose to turn a blind eye to the noisy parties, hoping they would eventually stop on their own.

She couldn't bear to turn a blind eye to the suffering of the stray animals in her neighborhood and decided to start a rescue organization

Other Ways to Say 'Turn a Blind Eye'

There are plenty of other ways to say you deliberately ignore something. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • Look the other way
  • Pretend not to see
  • Ignore
  • Overlook
  • Disregard
  • Brush under the rug
  • Sweep under the carpet
  • Turn a deaf ear (similar, but referring to ignoring something by not listening)
  • Let slide
  • Play dumb

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says they turn a blind eye, it means they pretend not to notice something when, in fact, they know very well it's there.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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