Q: I was reading an article about Edward Snowden in the New Yorker the other day and stopped at the phrase “blindingly obvious.” My first reaction was that the combination of “blindingly” and “obvious” was an oxymoron. But then I thought that maybe “blindingly” was there to emphasize the obviousness. So, what do you think?
A: In discussing the former government contractor who leaked numerous classified documents, the article in the June 3, 2015, issue of the New Yorker says:
“The President and others have praised the U.S.A. Freedom Act, but haven’t mentioned the blindingly obvious fact that without Edward Snowden the law wouldn’t exist.”
No, the phrase “blindingly obvious” isn’t an oxymoron, a combination of contradictory or incongruous words. The word “blindingly” is being used here, as you suspect, as an intensifier.
The word “blind” has had many uses since it showed up in the West Saxon Gospels in the late 10th century as an adjective meaning sightless.
In addition to indicating sightlessness, it’s meant unguarded (as in “blind side”), reckless (“blind fury”), closed at one end (“blind alley”), flying by means of instruments (“blind flying” or “flying blind”), unquestioning (“blind loyalty”), unrevealed (“blind copy”), and so on.
The adverbs “blind,” “blindly” and “blindingly” have similarly strayed in varying degrees from the original sightless meaning of the adjective, giving us such phrases as “blind drunk,” “blindly accept,” and the one you’re asking about, “blindingly obvious.”
Cambridge Dictionaries Online says “blindingly” means extremely in the expression “blindingly obvious,” and Cambridge gives this example: “It’s blindingly obvious that she’s not happy at school.”
The online Macmillan Dictionary defines “blindingly obvious” as completely obvious, and includes this example: “Isn’t it blindingly obvious he’s in love with you?”
The Oxford English Dictionary has an entry for “blindingly,” but it hasn’t been updated since 1887, when the OED was the NED (the New English Dictionary).
The earliest example, from an 1849 sermon by the English theologian Julius Charles Hare, uses the adverb loosely to mean in a blinding manner: “The darkness which lay blindingly on the hearts and souls of mankind.”
Although the OED doesn’t have any citations for “blindingly” used as an intensifier, we’ve found quite a few 19th-century examples in searches of literary databases.
This is from an 1892 article in the New Review, a British literary magazine, about Barrack-Room Ballads, a collection of songs and poems by Rudyard Kipling:
“Only a man of the most blindingly original genius could have written them, and I hope they may win the ear and heart of England, and make England more careful of her gallant children and defenders.”
And here’s an example from Harper’s Chicago and the World’s Fair (1893): “It was frightfully hot in Chicago, it was blindingly hot in the car, and it was hotter still in the country.”
And here’s another, from an 1898 article in the Bookman, a New York literary journal, commenting on the works of the American novelist and short-story writer John Fox Jr.:
“While ‘A Cumberland Vendetta’ is blindingly illiterate, ‘A Mountain Europa,’ truly the best thing he has written, is not.”
The earliest example we’ve found for the exact phrase “blindingly obvious” is from the June 14, 1919, issue of the New Statesman:
“Compared with this terrible and blindingly obvious fact, even the tale of German atrocities sinks into the position of an irrelevancy.”
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