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"I see", said the blind man, as he waved his wooden leg.

is an expression used by someone on whom comprehension has just dawned, or a catch-phrase addressed to that person. Sometimes it can be divided amongst the crowd

New comprehender: "I see!"
First onlooker : "Said the blind man"
All : "As he waved his wooden leg"

I've been hearing it quite a bit recently (I had thought I was the only person who said idiotic things like this), and am wondering where it came from. Was there a historical figure who was blind with a peg leg? Or is there some other explanation?

I have turned up a couple of variations on the phrase here and here but no-one seems to know where it came from.

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I've always heard it as "'I see' said the blind man to his deaf dog", as a sort of absurdist statement. –  Marcus_33 Oct 3 '12 at 12:09
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I think the origin of meaningless catchphrases is Off Topic. –  FumbleFingers Oct 3 '12 at 12:09
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I have never heard this (in the U.S.). However, I have heard this: "I see," said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw. –  JLG Oct 3 '12 at 12:16
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@FumbleFingers: Are meaningful catchphrases on topic? How about meaningless or meaningful phrases? –  Hugo Oct 3 '12 at 13:01
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There are numerous variants. My favorites are, "I see said the blind man to his deaf wife.", and "I see said the blind man as he picked up his hammer and saw." –  zzzzBov Oct 3 '12 at 14:38
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2 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

This appears to be the result of two apparently unrelated wellerisms.

I see, said the blind man

Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of Catch Phrases (1986) says:

I see, said the blind man. An elab. and humorous way of saying 'I understand', but implying, of course, that although one understands, one doesn't fully do so—as indeed, the dovetail (which R.S., 1977, remembers hearing as a schoolboy in 1915) when he couldn't see at all, makes clear. B.G.T., 1978, confirms this and adds that it has been esp. common among schoolchildren. In the US, it is much earlier: 'is was common in my parent's speech, and probably in their parents' (J.W.C., 1977): which would take it back to c. 1860. And Ashley, 1983, also from US, supplies the punning 'I see', said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.


As well as referencing Partridge, Colloquial Language in Ulysses: A Reference Tool by Robert William Dent tells us of the following.

James Joyce's Ulysses (1918-20) contains the line:

I see, says the blind man. Tell us news.

And from Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) by Charles Dickens:

'Let me see, said the blind man. Why the last news is, that I don't mean to marry your brother.'

Forbes Macgregor's Scots Proverbs and Rhymes (1983) contains:

'Sae I see,' said the blin' man.


This phrase is known as a wellerism, which according to Wikipedia are:

named after Sam Weller in Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, make fun of established clichés and proverbs by showing that they are wrong in certain situations, often when taken literally. In this sense, wellerisms that include proverbs are a type of anti-proverb. Typically a Wellerism consists of three parts: a proverb or saying, a speaker, and an often humorously literal explanation.

And includes this example:

"So I see," said the blind carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw.


Variations on the phrase have been documented in many folklore books, in the USA, Canada, Ireland, UK, Sweden and Finland:

  • "I see," said the blind man to his deaf wife over the telephone. (USA)

  • "I see," said the blind man. "You lie," said the dumb man. "Quiet!" said the deaf man. (Canada, 1930s)

Finnish Folklore says:

The wellerism "Niin nakyy, sanoi sokea"("'I see," said the blind man") was common as far back as Renaissance Italy and continues to recur today, often in new forms (e.g., '"I see, sano sokee ja putos jokeen" - "I see," said the blind man, falling into the river"). Wellerisms spread to Finland from Sweden and were especially popular in the 1930s. Some few wellerisms remain popular in Finland today, as in the United States and elsewhere.


As for the wooden leg variation, the California Folklore Society listed at least these three in Western folklore - Volume 18 (1959):

Wellerisms Involving Mention of a Wooden Leg

I see, said the blind man with a shake of his wooden leg, that the price of lumber has gone up.
I see, said the blind man as he peeped through the hole in grandpa's wooden leg (H.42).
I see, said the blind man as he spit through the knothole in his wooden leg


As she waved her wooden leg

Wooden legs appear in other wellerisms, such as this documented in Western folklore, Volumes 24-25 (1965) and the American Folklore Society's (Journal of American folklore, Volume 69)12 (1956):

"Aha!" she cried, as she waved her wooden leg and died. (Idaho)

"Hurrah!" shouted the old maid as she jumped out the window. (Tenn.)

"Hurrah!" shouted the old maid as she waved her wooden leg. (Ky.)

"Hurrah!" as the old maid shouted waving her wooden leg. (Ky.)

Sometimes she would also "roll her eyeballs", or instead of "Aha!" or "Hurrah!" it's "Too late!". In fact, a discussion at mudcat.org lists many variations. These phrases seems to have been used when something has finally happened (playing the winning hand at cards), or something has come too late, or just as an embellished "Aha!" exclamation.

And Lighter wrote:

After reviewing the entire thread, and several giant databases, I feel certain that McGrath of Harlow had the right idea back in 2006. He said that the simplest form of the saying was a parody of the final lines of "Sweet William's Farewell to Black-Eyed Susan," written by John Gay around 1715:

The boatswain gave the dreadful word, The sails their swelling bosom spread, No longer must she stay aboard; They kiss'd, she sigh'd, he hung his head. Her lessening boat unwilling rows to land; 'Adieu!' she cries; and waved her lily hand.

The form, the scansion, and six of the eight words are identical. What's more, "leg" pretty much rhymes with "spread" and "head."

"Black-Eyed Susan" was a popular song for 150 years. Captain Whall even includes it in his book of sea songs and shanties as having been sung in the 1860s.

The parody words don't seem to be reported until around 1900, but the large number of variants suggest that it's rather older than that.

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AFAIK, the standard version of this phrase is:

"So I see," said the blind carpenter as he picked up his hammer and saw.

This play on words is known as a Wellerism:

Wellerisms, named after Sam Weller in Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers, make fun of established clichés and proverbs by showing that they are wrong in certain situations, often when taken literally. In this sense, wellerisms that include proverbs are a type of anti-proverb. Typically a Wellerism consists of three parts: a proverb or saying, a speaker, and an often humorously literal explanation.

Webster provides another example along with its definition:

an expression of comparison comprising a usually well-known quotation followed by a facetious sequel (as “‘every one to his own taste,’ said the old woman as she kissed the cow”)

Origin of WELLERISM

Samuel Weller, witty servant of Mr. Pickwick in the story Pickwick Papers (1836–37) by Charles Dickens

First Known Use: 1839

Wikipedia also classifies the saying under nonsense verse:

Nonsense verse is a form of light, often rhythmical verse, usually for children, depicting peculiar characters in amusing and fantastical situations. It is whimsical and humorous in tone and tends to employ fanciful phrases and meaningless made-up words. Nonsense verse is closely related to Amphigouri (Greek amphi- (q.v.) + gyros "circle," thus "circle on both sides," or from Gk. -agoria "speech"), which is a meaningless or nonsensical piece of writing, especially one intended as a parody.

The page provides a couple of other versions of the same verse:

In some cases, the humor of nonsense verse is based on the incompatibility of phrases which make grammatical sense but semantic nonsense at least in certain interpretations, as in the traditional:

'I see' said the blind man to his deaf and dumb daughter

as he picked up his hammer and saw.

"I see", said the blind boy, to his elderly deaf daughter, over the broken telephone.

"I see", said the blind man to his deaf wife as their dog with no legs got up and ran away. He pissed in the wind and said "It all comes back to me now."

[The Wikipedia pages for Wellerism and Nonsensical verse list a number of other similar phrases.]

So, it appears that the only consistent part of the saying is the pun where the blind man says, "I see". The rest is essentially nonsense sometimes set to rhyme.

According to the book, "Proverbial Language in English Drama Exclusive of Shakespeare, 1495-1616: An Index" by R.W. Dent, the original blind man in the saying was very likely a man named Blind Hugh or possibly a George of Holloway:

That would I fain see, said blind GEORGE OF HOLLOWAY (blind Hugh) (Hugh from c1519, George from ?1596; ditto OW238a) c15 19 (1533)J. Heywood Pard. and Friar B3: Mary that wolde I se quod blynde hew. ?1596 (1640)

This is confirmed to an extent by excerpts from these books. The site deproverbio.com also provides an explanation for how the phrase could have evolved along with additional confirmation on its origin:

Wellerisms in which an animal speaks are usually allusions to fables, although I am not sure that there is one underlying "'What a dust I raise,' said the fly as it sat on the wheel". Wellerisms in which a man or woman speaks may be actual remarks that caught popular fancy and became traditional: "'That I would fain see,' said blind Hugh", which was current in the sixteenth century, may be such a quotation, for there was then a famous wit called Blind Hugh. A Swedish scholar has conjectured that generic names replaced specific names when the appropriateness of the specific names was forgotten. Thus we may have, although he does not cite this example, "'I see' said the blind man" and with a further development involving a pun, "'I see,' said the blind man and picked up his hammer and saw".

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