Original Text (Latin): “In regione caecorum rex est luscus.”
Translation: “In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king.”
Meaning as told by my informant:
“It means that if everything is bad, and one thing is less bad, then it’s automatically the best. It plays on the idea of ‘best’ being a relative term. So literally speaking, someone who has sight in one eye can see more than someone who is blind. Therefore, he’s the best. He rules. In life, if you’re better than people at something, even if you’re not even good at it, you’ll be the best. It’s winning by default. If you were playing a game and the other team forfeited, your team won just because it didn’t quit. You didn’t do anything, but you still did more than the other kids.”
My informant is my mother, who grew up hearing this phrase and doesn’t remember learning it. When I asked her if she knew the saying’s origin, she said “it must’ve come somewhere with a king, so it’s probably European.” She likes the saying because it puts things in perspective: “Once you enter the real world, nothing is perfect. A lot of life is just getting things done the best you can. It’s not like in school where there are grades. Many times, the things that are best aren’t even very good. That can be very comforting or very concerning, depending on your belief system. I think it’s kind of beautiful.”
I am currently in quarantine at my informant/mother’s house, and this piece was collected while we were eating dinner at the kitchen table.
I had always heard this saying in the context of someone getting something by default; they didn’t work hard for it, but they worked harder than others. However, after some research, I learned this specific phrasing is taken from an Erasmus quote in Latin that dates back to 1500, which is likely based off of a Hebrew excerpt from Genesis in the Old Testament “בשוק סמייא צווחין לעווירא סגי נהור”, which translates to “In the street of the blind, the one eyed man is called the Guiding Light.” Once I saw that this proverb is Biblical, it gave me a new perspective on my mother’s idea that it’s “kind of beautiful.” In the Bible, Jesus always says people are perfectly imperfect. While the English proverb in particular is competitive, it also shows that sometimes, even the best people aren’t perfect. I think this saying is a good example of how a proverb can change over time. Biblically, it means that we are all human, and we shouldn’t be so hard on each other. But today, it generally means someone wasn’t good, they were just better. While I don’t imagine myself using this proverb in its original context, it does give me a new appreciation for the saying itself.
For more information on the proverb’s origin: