Friday’s Phrase – Deaf as a Post

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:           Deaf as a post

This idiom requires almost no mental consideration to understand the concept it describes. ‘Posts’ (as in fence posts) have no ears and would be conceivably hard of hearing. But there are a lot of things that don’t have ears, yet this particular word has seem to stick through its lineage.

Current accepted meaning:

  1. informal : very deaf, unable to hear

My grandmother’s a sweet old lady, but she’s as deaf as a post.

Historical Recorded Use:

The first simile has its origin in John Palsgrave’s Acolastus (1540): “How deaf an ear I intended to give him … he were as good to tell his tale to a post.”

Etymology:

This one is unusual in that, unlike many whose heritage can be traced to the first written use of the idiom, the first appearance of the mother of this phrase is recorded as a true simile. It gives rise to believe that this written simile could have easily been the origins of what later became a common idiom. More often, we see common idioms already accepted and used in society, eventually being placed into print as they are now easily recognizable for their meaning. If the idiom was in common use, the author would have likely used it instead of setting the stage for a less concise simile.

Conclusion:

Although you could say “deaf as a (any inanimate object)” and still convey the same meaning, the reference to the fence post has remained. And these types of similes are rampant in our language. ‘Dumb as a rock’, ‘blind as a bat’, ‘big as a house’, ‘quiet as a mouse’, etc. Have fun thinking of all the others that have become so common.

 

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

John Palsgrave’s simile has been speculated to be his turn of a much older phrase readily in print at the time, ‘Deaf as an adder’, from Psalms 58:4.

Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear;

However, this biblical phrase as an idiom is not seen in print till circa 1605 in the comedy Eastward Hoe, written by English playwrights George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston, all born after the simile offered by Palsgrave.

Comments
7 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – Deaf as a Post”
  1. Now we’re even…I don’t recall ever hearing this one before! Good to add to my growing list!

  2. William Johnston says:

    Deaf as post derives from the French expression: “Sourd comme un pôt”

    In traditional French cooking there are two basic cooking pots: there is “une marmite” which has handles, and “un pôt” which has no handles. In other words one has ears (handles) the other does not. The circumflex accent over the “o” represents a now-defunct letter “s”. Nothing whatsoever to do with posts; though it does sound right.

    • Brad Osborne says:

      Thanks for clarifying and correcting. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge of the subject.

      • 1glooisg0ne says:

        The odd thing is that I cannot find confirmation of this in any etymological dictionary or supposedly reliable source. Nowhere can I find anything linking the English and French phrases.

        I only learnt of the origin of the French expression from a Frenchman. The French expression makes sense in a way that the English does not, on the face of it, make any sense. Linking the two does make sense. There’s the added fact (confusion?) that the English expression just sounds so very “right”. It’s when you start thinking about the origin of it that I find myself thinking: why a “post”, rather than, for instance, a “clod”, or a “divot”, or a “brick”?

        I would suspect, incidentally, that “deaf as an adder” probably has a similar origin to the French expression, inasmuch as an adder has no ears – none that we can see at least.

      • Brad Osborne says:

        I often look for the first use in print as a way of finding the true origins. Often, idioms like these are in common use verbally before they ever find their way to print. That can be a sign post to origin.

      • 1glooisg0ne says:

        This discussion has led me to question the explanation that I was given all those years ago, and which I have quoted here.

        Looking at a French Etymological site, (https://www.expressio.fr/expressions/etre-sourd-comme-un-pot/page-5) they cite the cooking pot possibility but suggest that it is more likely that the French expression actually derives from the English!

        (One thing to note is that I misspelt the French word “pot”. It actually has no circumflex over the “o”; that would weaken the case for “post” being derived from “pôt” (sic).

        Maybe “Deaf as a post” is like “Pissed as a coot/rat”. There’s no indication that either coots or rats have any particular propensity for drunkenness; they are just expressions that sound good, and they have therefore stuck. “Deaf as a post” has a pleasing rhythm to it – and the French seem to have thought so as well!

        By the same token, “Stone-deaf” sounds right; “Post-deaf” does not.

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