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The meaning and origin of the expression: I see no ships

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I see no ships

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'I see no ships'?

The expression 'I see no ships' is to knowingly ignore something which you know to be real and significant.

What's the origin of the phrase 'I see no ships'?

'I see no ships' is a description of the response made when Admiral Horatio Nelson wilfully disobeying a signal to withdraw during a naval engagement. The same incident is also the origin of the expression 'turn a blind eye'.

Who coined the term 'turn a blind' and whether Nelson actually said "I see no ships" we can't now be sure. What we can be sure about is that both expressions refer to an actual, well-documented, naval engagement and Nelson's part in it.

I see no shipsIn the naval battle of Copenhagen in 1801 Nelson lead the attack of the British fleet against a joint Danish/Norwegian enemy. The British fleet of the day was commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. The two men disagreed over tactics and at one point Hyde Parker sent a signal (by the use of flags) for Nelson to disengage. Nelson was convinced he could win if he persisted and that's when he 'turned a blind eye'.

In their biography Life of Nelson, published just eight years later, Clarke and M'Arthur printed what they claimed to be a Nelson's actual words at the time:

[Putting the glass to his blind eye] "You know, Foley, I have only one eye - and I have a right to be blind sometimes... I really do not see the signal."

Nelson may or may not have coined 'I see no ships' but it was his actions in battle that have made it into an everyday expression.

The flags used by Nelson in the Napoleonic Wars also have a part to play in another expression well known to an English audience - "England expects that every man will do his duty". This was the flag message that Nelson gave to the English fleet just prior to the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

What Nelson actually asked to be sent was "England confides [that is, is confident that] each man will do his duty". Lieutenant John Pasco, who was the ship's signal officer, suggest using expects rather than confides as that could be conveyed by a single flag whereas 'expects' would have to be spelled out, one flag per letter.

Nelson's response was "That will do, Pasco, make it directly".

See also: Kiss me Hardy