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What Is the Origin of “Hindsight is 20/20”?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesEveryone is familiar with the adage “Hindsight is 20/20” which means having a clearer understanding of an event or situation after it has occurred. The question is, however, just how clear is your understanding of the year 2020? You would be kind if you described 2020 as a series of shit shows pulverized by a mind-numbing succession of escalating train wrecks exploding into a spectacular sequence of cascading cluster f*cks drowned by wave after wave of destructive tsunamis. In short, if you wanted to know what the apocalypse will be like — just look back at 2020. You just lived through it! And, if you are like most people, you really don’t want to see it with 20/20 vision. It’s just too painful.

So let’s turn our view from the catastrophe that was 2020 — annus horribilis, to borrow the words of Queen Elizabeth — and focus on the phrase mentioned earlier. Where did it originate? Let us travel back more than 150 years to Utrecht, Netherlands to the office of ophthalmologist Herman Snellen (1834-1908) at the Netherlands Hospital for Eye Patients. In 1862, Snellen introduced the Snellen chart to study visual acuity. You know the one — you’ve seen it dozens of times over the years. It is either printed as a tall rectangular poster or projected on a wall in the ophthalmologist’s office. It consists of 11 lines of optotypes, specially designed capital letters, that gradually decrease in size. An individual with normal vision can read all those letters from 20 feet away. Thus normal vision is 20/20. “But why 20 feet?” you ask. Excellent question. Although that number appears to be random, it is not. At 20 feet the eye is relaxed in its normal shape and doesn’t require bending light rays to focus an image on the retina. Ah, I see. So if you wear glasses, you are in good company: more than 75% of Americans do not have 20/20 vision. And if you wear glasses or contacts, it is likely that they were designed and manufactured by EssilorLuxottica, a behemoth in the eyewear business. The company has a market capitalization of $70 billion and annual revenue of about $7.8 billion. While you may see competitors in the marketplace (e.g., Glasses.com, LensCrafters, Sunglass Hut, Pearle Vision, and Target Optical) it is only an illusion. All those stores and the brands they carry are all owned by EssilorLuxottica. But we digress…

So years later, the introduction of the Snellen chart in America influenced the phrase. The earliest usage of the “hindsight is 20/20” appears in an article in the California newspaper, The Van Nuys News (February 17, 1949), written by humorist Richard Armour. He wrote, “Most people’s hindsight is 20/20.” Nothing could be clearer.

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Read related posts:
What is the Pinocchio Effect?
What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?
What is the Borgesian Conundrum?
What is an Abecedarian Insult?
Origins of Talk Turkey
What is the Meaning of Six Ways From Sunday?

For further reading:
The Yale Book of Quotations, Fred Shapiro
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