Dear Word Detective: For a few years, I have been trying to figure out if “blithely” and “blindly” have historically been used interchangeably. My understanding of “blithely” is, basically, “doing things without thinking about them, therefore running the danger of doing dangerous things.” And some uses of the word “blind” definitely would fit with that, such as “following someone blindly” or “going blindly forward.” My guess is that some phrases might have originated with either “blind” or “blithe” as the word, and then people misheard them. The reason I have been wondering this is that a couple years back, I studied the history of the organized blind movement. While studying, I learned about the use of blindness as a negative metaphor for the inability or unwillingness to think. I know there are a lot of such phrases, but some at least seem like mistakes. — A. Greenwick.
There are indeed a lot of such phrases, many of which began as metaphors but have become established English idioms, usually in a derogatory sense. Strike the “usually” — I can’t think of a single positive case. One such use that I have watched wax and wane in the course of my life, and currently seems to be increasing again, is the use of “retarded” (or “retard”) applied to a person perceived to be either wrong on some question or simply uncool. This obnoxious use seems especially popular on the internet, where it is, unfortunately, impossible to simply punch the offenders in the nose. Come on, developers. There should be an app for that.
“Blind” first appeared as an adjective in Old English, based on Germanic roots carrying the sense of “sightless” as well as “obscure, dim, in darkness.” But “blind” also brought with it the figurative senses (as enumerated by the Oxford English Dictionary) of “lacking in mental perception, discernment, or foresight; destitute of intellectual, moral, or spiritual light,” and these senses were used in English as often as the literal “sightless” sense. The use of “blind” to mean “undiscriminating, reckless, not discerning, etc.” (“The blind veneration that generally is paid to antiquity,” Hogarth, 1753) dates back at least to the 15th century. So the modern use of “blind” as a negative metaphor is nothing new in English.
“Blithe” is a completely separate word with a much happier history. The roots of “blithe” lie in early Germanic forms meaning “gentle, kind, happy, cheerful” and the like, and the ultimate source of “blithe” seems to be a root meaning “to shine.” Can’t get much cheerier than that. In English, where “blithe” first appeared in Old English, it meant simply “kind or friendly” to others or “happy and cheerful” in demeanor (“His spirit was blithe and its fire unquenchable,” 1872).
This “fun to be around” sense of “blithe” chugged along happy as a clam until the 1920s, when (perhaps reflecting the disillusionment born of World War I) it suddenly took a darker turn. In “England, My England,” a collection of short stories, D.H. Lawrence employed “blithe” in a new, negative sense of “heedless, careless, or unthinking” (“From mother and nurse it was a guerrilla gunfire of commands, and blithe, quicksilver disobedience from the three blonde, never-still little girls.”).
This “who cares?” sense of “blithe” is now, unfortunately, by far the most common (“The era of cheap fuels led to a blithe disregard of second-law fundamentals,” 1977), and seeing “blithe” used in any sense more positive than “unrattled” (“The story’s part-blithe, part-resigned tone … will ring familiar,” LA Times, 3/11/12) is rare.
The relatively-new “heedless, careless, or unthinking” meaning of “blithe” certainly overlaps with the much older figurative uses of “blind,” but I doubt that confusion of the two words has played much part in their evolution (which is not to say that some people haven’t confused them at times). The change of the meaning of “blithe” from “cheerful” to “witless” seems a natural evolution of the sense of the word.