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I came across the phrase ‘played a blinder’ in the following paragraph of the New York Times’ December 12 article, titled “British Euro Farce,” dealing with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s veto of EU treaty reform in December.

Marx observed that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Having a British prime minister say he’ll only go along with Germany saving the euro if City of London banks get an exemption from a financial transactions tax, while a Tory M.P. parties with Nazi lookalikes, and another Tory boasts of Cameron having “played a blinder,” is about as farcical as it gets.

As I am unfamiliar with the phrase, ‘played a blinder,’ I checked its meaning on Google, and found that only the Free Dictionary comes up with a definition:

to perform with a lot of skill, especially when you are playing sport, as an example: He's played a blinder in every game so far this season.

Apparently it indicates performing the play skillfully and successfully. Can I apply this definition to the above sentence as it is?

Does it mean many Tories believe that Cameron vetoed the EU treaty reform successfully 'with a lot of skill’? Why is “played a blinder” in quotes?

Is ‘play a blinder’ a popular idiom, not only in sports but in all other domains, in both UK and US?

  • Neither "play a blinder", nor "play a binder" are popular idioms in the US. – GEdgar Jan 1 '12 at 2:33
  • You should probably change the title, if you can -- it still says 'play a binder'. – John Lawler Jan 1 '12 at 2:42
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    In the context quoted, the Tory lickspittle was crowing because he thinks Cameron "cunningly outwitted" the schemes of mainland European politicians and bankers. Which may even be true, for all I know. – FumbleFingers Jan 1 '12 at 3:15
  • ...the farcical element, by the way, comes from the reporter drawing parallels between this current Euro-crisis and Chamberlain's "Peace for our time" just before WW2 broke out. – FumbleFingers Jan 1 '12 at 4:09
  • is it anything to do with the peaky blinders, setting up cleaver< although elegal> schemes and getting away with them.? – user52491 Sep 20 '13 at 16:45
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Play a blinder is British slang for play exceptionally well, successfully execute a cunning plan, etc.

All instances shown on that link are UK usage - set the corpus to American, and there are none at all. Here's a 1959 instance of a blinder being used to describe a staggeringly high bill.

It dates from at least the early 60s. A blinder is normally something blindingly good, dazzling, startling, etc. - but sometimes it's just as exceptional, only bad.

  • 1059 should be 1959, but I am not allowed a one-character edit. – GEdgar Jan 1 '12 at 4:00
  • @GEdgar: Ooops! Ty. I must have been subconsciously trying to better Henry's 1957 reference! – FumbleFingers Jan 1 '12 at 4:03
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"Played a blinder" is certainly a UK sports idiom for brilliant performance and so metaphorically in other areas. It is not clear whether it is the spectators or the opponents who are being blinded by the brilliance.

The ealiest version I can easily find is from The Spectator in January 1957 talking about a Welsh rugby player.

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This idiom was used regularly at Birmingham City Football matches in the 60's and 70's when I was a young supporter. If a player was quick witted enough to outwit his opponent or have an exceptionally good game then "Trevor Francis" played an absolute blinder! The origin probably goes back to the local Small Heath (where Birmingham City are based) gang Peaky Blinders and the way they "played" and indeed were "played" by rivals and law enforcement agencies

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John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009), has this entry for "play a blinder":

play a blinder perform very well informal

Dating from the 1950s, blinder is a colloquial term for 'dazzlingly good piece of play' in sport, especially in rugby or cricket.

[Example:] 2001 Sun Gilles will start and I would just love him to play a blinder and score a couple of goals to knock Southampton out of the cup.

However, the expression appears to be considerably older than the 1950s. Although I don't have a subscription to the British Newspaper Archive site—and so can't see the image of the original articles—I have reconstructed three early newspaper references to "play a blinder" from snippet quotations from that archive. There are undoubtedly others as well.

From "Gleanings ..." in the Lancashire [England] Evening Post (November 1, 1919) [combined snippets]:

... Ephraim Liverpool captain, who played a blinder at Burnley last week, says a capable, homely footballer who could take a handful of boys and coach them would be worth his weight in gold if ...

From "We Would Like to Know," in the [Yorkshire, England] Star Green 'un (February 11, 1928) [combined snippets; some of the wording clearly incomplete or inaccurate]:

What is the attraction at Handsworth for a number of Bible Class and Sunday School League players? Who was the Adults Leaguer who "told off" for letting two of his men help the first team? And the player a Rotherham team the goal nets would keep the rain off? Who was the outside left of a Rotherham team who had a good day last Saturday? Apart from playing a "blinder" scored two goals and won thirty bob in a butter?

From "Saved Two Penalties" in the Belfast [Northern Ireland] Telegraph (November 1933) [combined snippets]:

The well-known sporting phrase 'horses for courses' aptly applies to Percy Hackworth, who signed for Olentoran last week. Every time he is opposed to Dulimurry, Percy is sure to play a blinder. Besides saving two penalties for the Glens 11 ...

It thus appears that standout British athletes have been credited with playing blinders for a century or more.

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For all of my long life 'played a blinder' has meant to have done, usually pulled off, an extremely good thing. For example, I have just watched someone in a new job who has swiftly shown a natural aptitude for it, and is doing an oustanding job, much better than long-established employees, and I thought whoever had considered putting her in that position had 'played a blinder'!

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