“Even with the abusive nanny he had when he was eleven, Rousseau was side blinded.”

I see a little boy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trotting alongside his nanny, who is applying a riding crop to his withers, an action he can neither anticipate nor avoid because like a carriage horse or racehorse he is wearing blinders, or blinkers.

A horse in blinkers. Imagine, as I did, little Rousseau wearing them! Source of image: webster-dictionary.org.

Here he is, a bit older than "child," but certainly looking rather horsey.

The reason for the apparatus called “blinkers” is to keep horses from being distracted from things around them. Certainly in a crowded city street a horse might get very skittish if he could see how close other vehicles and people are to him, or could be aware of every sudden movement in his vicinity; and I imagine the same thinking explains putting blinkers on racehorses. In these circumstances, though, the responsibility of the carriage driver or race jockey is much greater than it would be if the horse could take in his surroundings: the human becomes solely responsible for the safe navigation of the horse and has to imagine the passage from the horse’s point of view. I suppose that the jockey’s role in that regard isn’t much different from the role of a nanny taking her little charge on a promenade: being aware of dangers and distractions and keeping the child away from them and oblivious to them. Rousseau says his nanny was abusive, and so my mental image of him decked out in blinkers has to include that riding crop in the nanny’s hand. Of course Rousseau did not actually wear blinkers, nor did his nanny (Jacqueline, his nurse) whip him. In fact, Rousseau’s Confessions describe his childhood years as full of affection, not punishment.

My student is probably not talking about Jacqueline. When Rousseau was entering adolescence—yes, around eleven—he was sent by his uncle to Bossey, a boarding school, and the Confessions have nothing but praise for his treatment there too. What is interesting is his reference to a punishment method employed on rare occasions by the school’s master, M. Lambercier, and Mlle. Lambercier, his sister (most assuredly not a “nanny”). Rousseau does not specify the means of punishment, but he says enough to suggest that it was, in fact, whipping—a punishment common in even the best schools for centuries. He says that administered by Mlle. Lambercier the punishment excited his senses in new ways, and that it would probably not have had that effect had M. Lambercier done it; he also notes that Mlle. Lambercier did not like to do it, since it tired her, and he says even a disapproving or disappointed look from her while he recited his lessons was enough to chastise him. I hasten to add that he never suggests he was punished on the street, or while wearing blinkers.

Well, enough of fantasies, mine or Rousseau’s!

My student didn’t do a very good job of presenting information in her sentence; but for me the verbal interest is that last couple of words: “side blinded.”

I’m sure she had heard “blind-sided” on more than one occasion; but she processed it “side blinded.” Now, why was that?

Her phrasing creates a situation wherein the individual is blinded on his or her sides (hence my imagined blinkers). Someone comes along and puts blinders on her.

In the actual expression, because the individual is not watching, or cannot see, to the sides, something comes up that he or she did not expect and affects him or her.

If my student drove a Prius, she might have learned from experience what a “blind side” is, and therefore gotten the phrase right. I find my Prius a comfortable car with good fuel efficiency (albeit less than touted in the ads); but to me the visibility is bad. I can’t really see out the passenger side at the rear, where a merge-right would make that important; I can’t really see well enough out my own side for some left-merges. The mirrors help, but I don’t like to rely entirely on mirrors. And for the worst visibility problem a mirror wouldn’t help: it is ahead to the left. The door pillar, amplified by audio speakers and curtain airbags, is a real obstacle, especially when driving on a left-bending curve. I absolutely cannot see a pedestrian or bicyclist approaching on such a curve unless I shift maniacally forward and backward in my seat. Maybe I’m just shorter than the car’s designers planned on my being; or maybe I’ve been spoiled by the German cars I had before I bought the Prius. I ask other Prius drivers if they have this problem, and the only one who has said unequivocally Yes is also a woman of medium height whose previous cars were not Toyotas.

Ooops. I didn’t set out today to bad-mouth the Prius, although I would be interested to know if anyone else has this problem: the dread of BEING BLIND-SIDED from the left. That is, the car IS blind, or blind-ish, on the left side, and therefore anything coming from that side would loom up unexpectedly and perilously. This is what the expression means. My student doesn’t seem to know it: hence the inversion of the phrase.

Of course we use the expression figuratively too. So far I have escaped any bad results of physical blind-siding, but I do seem to be more prone than most to the figurative kind. I’ve never been much of a strategist, although evidently one of the smiles in my repertoire does suggest otherwise to some of the people I talk with. I sometimes think I should go into meetings wearing a “No Hidden Agendas” button, just to reassure people that what I say is actually what I mean and what I propose has the aim I declare and not some sneaky other purpose. Is this directness, honesty, simplicity, or naïveté? Maybe a little of all of these, preventing me from watching my flanks. Because I bumble through life with this orientation, I am often blind-sided by the plans, assumptions, or accusations of others, or by unanticipated events.

In fact, if I were planning to be buried after death, I would immediately order a tombstone that read BLIND-SIDED AGAIN!

And if I placed such an order, I would be careful not to patronize an establishment where someone like my student worked as engraver. I would hate to present myself to cemetery strollers as “SIDE BLINDED.”

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““Even with the abusive nanny he had when he was eleven, Rousseau was side blinded.”

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