English has many different expressions. These range in style from the straightforward to the poetical.
Today, we’re going to examine one specific expression that’s an example of the latter.
Specifically, it’s a paradox, a rhetorical technique where an apparently contradictory phrase or clause (see our article about clauses vs phrases) is used to suggest an underlying truth or irony.
What is the meaning of “I see, said the blind man”?
The expression “I see, said the blind man” hinges on a pun. “I see” can refer to both sight and understanding, so a blind man saying he cannot see (visually) implies that the speaker does not understand what’s going on. Although this expression is intended to be amusing, it’s also an example of ableist language and should be avoided.
The earliest blind man who saw
This expression is often assumed to date from the 1960s or 1980s. Amazingly, its first appearance in print was actually in the 1500s, and it seems likely that it was spoken for much longer before that.
In a collection of proverbs from 1533, John Heywood reported hearing a traditional saying that goes like this: “Mary, that wolde I se quod blynde Hew.”
Early modern English believed spelling was optional, so even knowing how to use hence in a sentence won’t help you figure that quote out.
If we modernize the spelling, we get: “My! I would like to see that, said blind Hugh.”
Although people don’t usually attribute this to a specific blind person anymore, the saying is otherwise much unchanged.
How to use the expression “I see, said the blind man”
The key to understanding “I see, said the blind man” is to realize that it is basically a joke.
Blind men, obviously, do not have working eyes. That means they cannot see things.
However, the word “see” can have two meanings. In addition to being able to perceive things visually, “I see” can also mean something like “I understand.”
In regular usage, someone might say “I see, said the blind man” if they don’t understand something.
The reason this is funny is because a listener will think that they do understand at first and then realize they do not when they finish speaking.
Another way to use this is to wait until someone else says “I see.”
If you think they don’t actually understand what’s happening, you can gently poke fun of them by adding “said the blind man” yourself.
Example dialog using “I see, said the blind man”
“The one over there.”
“I see, said the blind man.”
In this example conversation, vague instructions lead the second speaker to jokingly point out that the first is not being clear at all.
Related expressions of “I see, said the blind man”
There are several other versions of this phrase. Although all of them are more detailed and sometimes even more paradoxical, the meaning is the same no matter which version you use.
“I see,” said the blind man to his deaf wife
This version highlights the irony of the blind man’s actions by giving him a deaf wife. We already know he can’t see. Now we realize that the person he’s talking to can’t even hear him telling her that he sees.
There is also a nearly identical version where the blind man is speaking to his deaf dog.
“I see,” said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw
In this expression, the focus is on another pun. A hammer is a tool used in construction. So is a saw. On that level, it makes sense for someone to pick up “a hammer and saw.”
However, since we’re already dealing with a blind man and a pun about seeing, our brains tend to interpret “saw” as the past tense of the verb “to see.”
In other words, the blind man is picking up a hammer and then seeing, rather than picking up “a hammer and saw.”
“I see,” said the blind man as he waved his wooden leg
This version of the expression is a little weird. Rather than playing more with double meanings of language or adding an even more paradoxical action, it leans hard into absurdism.
Why is a man waving a wooden leg? Nobody knows. It’s just a very startling image. That’s probably the point, though.
Much like a blind man can’t see and a deaf woman can’t hear, it makes no sense to wave a wooden leg.
A note about ableism in language
No harm is intended by use of the phrase “I see, said the blind man.” Instead, it’s just meant to be a mildly humorous expression.
That being said, whether an expression intends to harm people doesn’t have any bearing on the harm it actually does.
Unfortunately, this expression and its extensions are good examples of that circumstance.
While it might seem that this is an overreaction, examining the phrase through the point of view of a blind person clears up why it’s so insulting.
In each version of the saying, the humor comes from the fact that a blind man can’t see.
That in itself is kind of obnoxious, but it’s not the worst part.
Rather, the actual meaning of the expression as it’s used is what makes its reference to a blind person so insulting.
It isn’t just that the blind person can’t see with his eyes.
Because the expression plays with the double meaning of “I see” as both a visual reference and one of understanding something, the implication is that blind people aren’t just visually impaired but also can’t understand the world around them.
Anyone familiar with the story of Helen Keller, the deafblind woman who was an acclaimed author and political activist, knows that isn’t true.
Like “the blind leading the blind” and other expressions based on disabilities which end up having insulting meanings, the expressions explained above are a little dated today.
Especially in situations where you might be misconstrued as making fun of someone’s physical condition, it’s better to come up with a clearer, less clever way of saying that you don’t quite understand.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.