‘until Nelson gets his eye back’: meaning and origin

In British and Irish English, with reference to the fact that the British naval commander Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was blinded in one eye during the siege of Calvi, Corsica, in 1794 (cf. also the authentic origin of ‘to turn a blind eye’):

1-: The phrase until, or when, Nelson gets his eye back is used:
– of something that will not happen for a very long time, or that will never happen;
– of something that will last for a very long time, or that will last forever.

For example, the following is from an article about Hide That Can: A Photographic Diary: the Men of Arlington House (London: Trolley, 2002), in which the Irish photographer Deirdre O’Callaghan documented the lives of the (mainly Irish) residents of Arlington House, a hostel for recovering alcoholics in Camden, London—article published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 10th November 2002:

O’Callaghan’s book is filled with humour, too: one-liners, self-deprecating stories, nicknames. There are shots of ‘Gerry from Kerry who thinks he’s from Derry’, and of someone known simply as 40-Pints. There is a photograph of a tattooed arm resting on a crutch belonging to Eddy, who says, ‘I wasn’t drunk when this happened, but I was on my way to the offie’, and then asks the photographer to ‘Lend me a fiver til Nelson gets his eye back.’

2-: The metaphor of Nelson getting his eye back is used of a very small chance of success.

For example, the following is from Rugby comment, by Dick Best, published in the Evening Standard (London, England) of Thursday 16th November 2000—Clive Woodward (born 1956) was then coach of the England team:

As expected, there are not too many fresh faces in England’s line-up as Clive Woodward aims to build on the summer success. A warm-up fixture might have been appropriate before taking on the world champions. However, in the current Rugby Football Union-versus-club climate, it would be easier for Nelson to get his eye back than for Mr Woodward to have got another game.

1-: These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the phrase until, or when, Nelson gets his eye back that I have found:

1.1-: From a letter that a person signing themself ‘Regular’ wrote to the Editor, published in The Daily Mail (Hull, Yorkshire, England) of Thursday 9th November 1922:

Sir,—May I say that I was greatly amused, especially being a personal friend of Mr Pughe’s, at the answers he gave at the meeting in South-West Hull? May I, as one of the electorate of South-West Hull, respectfully ask Mr Pughe if he is a friend of the ex-Service men and their dependents; if so, how can he be a follower of our late Prime Minister, Mr Lloyd George? May I again ask him how many promises Mr Lloyd George has kept for the men that did their utmost to keep Jerry from Blighty and from their own doorsteps? He promised the heroes (they were all heroes that went to sacrifice life in the late campaign, everyone will admit), yet his promises will never be fulfilled until Nelson gets his eye back. Yes, Mr Lloyd George’s “home for British heroes” is, may I say, for the Yorkshire lads, Beverley and Anlaby Road Workhouses—don’t you think?

1.2-: From an advertisement for Cross, an army surplus store, published in the Manchester Evening News (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 19th July 1923:

Will last until Nelson gets his eye back.

1.3-: From The Rugby Advertiser (Rugby, Warwickshire, England) of Tuesday 23rd October 1928:


That even the youngest of children are affected by modernism.
That an instance of this was provided during the week-end.
That a little New Bilton girl, of the tender age of five, paid a visit to her grandfather.
That he had done a small repair to her shoes.
That he laughingly asked when she was going to pay him for them.
That she promptly replied “When Nelson gets his eye back.”

1.4-: From the Skegness Standard (Skegness, Lincolnshire, England) of Wednesday 20th January 1937:

Sightless Man Who Never Forgets a Voice

If John Filby it not the happiest man in Louth he is certainly one of its cheeriest optimists, and a philosopher as well. And Happy Jack is blind. He was not always blind, however, which makes his cheerfulness the more difficult to understand, for perhaps the most cruel blow of all is to be deprived of sight, after one has seen for the greater part of one’s life.
Blind Jack is fond of a joke, and he himself has created one with a kind of grim significance that only a sightless man can adequately realise. He called in at our Louth office this week to accede to a request that we might take his photograph. The writer had never exchanged more than a few words with him whilst helping him across the traffic occasionally, but Jack at once recognised his voice, called him by name, and began:
“What would you say if you was fixed like me and somebody said to you ‘When are you coming to see me’?”
It was an embarrassing question, and one for which it was both painful and difficult to find the right kind of reply. We searched for it and failed, and finally had to admit that we didn’t know.
“I tell you what I say,” he said. “I tell ’em that I’ll come and see them when Nelson gets his eye back.”
And the spontaneously happy laugh which he indulged in at a joke which nothing but brutal callousness would make a man repeat in the hearing of a blind person revealed exactly the courage and content which has enabled Jack Filby, friend of everybody in Louth, to bear his great affliction.

1.5-: From the Evening Despatch (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Friday 24th November 1939:

“When Nelson Gets His Eye Back”

After pleading guilty to being drunk and disorderly James Thompson, a native of Wigan, to-day asked the Birmingham Magistrates if he could make a statement.
Then Thompson proceeded to make a lengthy harangue, in which he said:
“I’ve been 31 years in the Navy, and retired in the position of Gunnery Instructor —that is equal to the sergeant-major.
“I have been to Chatham to get some back pay, but I didn’t get it. I suppose I shall get it when Nelson gets his eye back.” (Laughter).

1.6-: From the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Monday 4th December 1939:


“I’ll pay the fine when Nelson gets his eye back” exclaimed James Malia (62), South African War veteran, of 23, Maple Avenue, Durham, when fined 5s. at Durham City Police Court to-day for a black-out offence. He pleaded that a candle light had shown through a curtained window when his wife went upstairs to attend to the children.

2-: The earliest occurrence that I have found of the metaphor of Nelson getting his eye back, used of a very small chance of success, is from the memoirs of Arthur Fowler Neil (1867-1939), former Superintendent of Scotland Yard, published in the Leicester Evening Mail (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Monday 13th March 1933:

In one of the many cases of theft I had at this time there was among some of the property stolen a very large, rare, and costly antique marquise ring. It consisted in its make-up of a huge Indian, blood-red ruby, set in a background of pure white alabaster, around which was a ring of costly emeralds. It was a huge ornament, and had graced, some time during the early eighteenth century, the finger of an Indian rajah. The owner placed great value on it, on account of its wonderful uniqueness. He had constantly kept in touch with me, and I had promised to do my best to try and recover it for him; I could do no more. Personally, I thought his chances were as good as “Nelson getting his eye back.”

One thought on “‘until Nelson gets his eye back’: meaning and origin

  1. The expression Nelson’s got his eye back was used by my mother (from Hull also) similar to the Queen Elizabeth/Mary phrase in that if she was told something that she already knew/was glaringly obvious, quoting Nelson’s ‘recovery’ was effectively asking the informant to give real news not “old hat”!


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