the biblical origin of ‘deaf as an adder’

The country people say that an adder can never die till sunset. If it be cut to pieces, the bits will retain their vitality till the sun goes down. They also say that on the adder’s belly will be found the words,—
           “If I could hear as well as see,
            No man in life could master me.”

from A dictionary of the Sussex dialect and collection of provincialisms in use in the county of Sussex (1875), by William Douglas Parish (1833-1904)



The image of the deaf adder originated in the Book of Psalms, 58:

(King James Version – 1611)
To the chiefe musician Al-taschith, Michtam of Dauid.
1 De yee indeed speake righteousnesse, O congregation? doe ye iudge vprightly, O ye sonnes of men?
2 Yea, in heart you worke wickednesse; you waigh the violence of your hands in the earth.
3 The wicked are estranged from the wombe, they goe astray as soone as they be borne, speaking lies.
4 Their poison is like the poyson of a serpent; they are like the deafe adder that stoppeth her eare:
5 Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming neuer so wisely.

In the New International Version (2011), the last two verses are:

4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
           like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
5 that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
          however skilful the enchanter may be.

The phrase deaf as an adder, meaning wilfully unhearing, is first recorded in Eastward Hoe (London, 1605), a comedy by the English poets and playwrights George Chapman (circa 1560-1634), Ben Jonson (circa 1573-1637) and John Marston (1576-1634):

When the Sessions come, they shall heare from me. In the meane time, to all suites, to all intreaties, to all letters, to all trickes, I will be deafe as an Adder, and blind as a Beetle, lay mine eare to the ground, and lock mine eyes i’my hand, against all temptations.

The English clergyman and schoolmaster Ebenezer Cobham Brewer (1810-97) explained the image in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1st edition – London, 1870):

According to tradition, the asp stops its ears when the charmer utters his incantation, by applying one ear to the ground and twisting its tail into the other.

The English author Pelham Grenville Wodehouse’s (1881-1975) mentioned the biblical deaf adder on several occasions; for example:

– in Right Ho, Jeeves (1934):

I perceived that little good could result from continuing the discussion. I waved a hand and shrugged a shoulder.
“Very well, Aunt Dahlia,” I said, with dignity, “if you don’t want to be in on the ground floor, that is your affair. But you are missing an intellectual treat. And, anyway, no matter how much you may behave like the deaf adder of Scripture which, as you are doubtless aware, the more one piped, the less it danced, or words to that effect, I shall carry on as planned.”

– in Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit (1954):

Once more I had the sense of not making progress. Her face, I observed, was cold and hard, like my kipper, which of course during these exchanges I had been neglecting, and I began to understand how these birds in Holy Writ must have felt after their session with the deaf adder. I can’t recall all the details, though at my private school I once won a prize for Scripture Knowledge, but I remember that they had the dickens of an uphill job trying to charm it, and after they had sweated themselves to a frazzle no business resulted. It is often this way, I believe, with deaf adders.

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