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Hindsight is 20/20

Snellen eye chart

Hindsight is 20/20 definition

Hindsight is 20/20. It is much easier to judge a situation when it’s already passed than when it is in the current moment.

Meaning

Hindsight is the understanding of a situation after it has happened. 20/20 vision is the diagnosis for normal human vision by an eye doctor measured by reading an eye chart accurately from twenty feet away. So saying hindsight is 20/20 is to say it’s not difficult to understand a situation better after it has already passed.

Hindsight is 20/20 Examples

  • David said it was pretty silly of me to fill up my gas tank right before I totaled my car.  All I could say to him was hindsight is always 20/20.
  • Hindsight is 20/20. Before I gave my $100 coat to the man at the door, maybe I should have made sure he was the host and not just a down on his luck hooligan.

Quotes

Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20 – 20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go.

Robert M. Pirsig

The psychiatric ward was a really creepy place and, hindsight being 20/20, the creepiest thing about it was that I truly belonged there.

Steve-O

Hindsight is 20/20 Origin

The 20/20 in the phrase is called a Snellen fraction. It comes from the Snellen eye chart developed by the ophthalmologist Herman Snellen in 1862. The chart is made up of rows of letters of varying size used to measure a person’s vision typically at a distance of 20ft(6m). I’m sure most readers are familiar with the idea of this chart although the snellen chart has been largely replaced in recent decades by the slightly different logMAR charts.

I think I can safely say this idiom is no older than 1862 thanks to our knowledge of Snellen fractions. While the 20 in 20/20 is a measurement in feet. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an American idiom as England and other countries also used feet and inches. In some cases as late as the 1960s!

Literary Origin

If those dignified and restrained gentlemen would like to accuse the Record editor, or The Record itself of lying about these matters . . . and will do it in plain and un-restrained English . . . we’ll be happy to give the lot of them an opportunity to prove their case in court. Hindsight is 20/20 . . . foresight wadn’t so good

The Canadian Record, March 19, 1959

The first found record of our idiom in text is a passage from The Canadian Record. A newspaper recording Canada and Hemphill County news since 1893.

The article quoted is from 1959. It seems to be in response to critics that say the newspaper incorrectly reported a cities funds. The paper stated it was $13,000 more than what the mayor reported later. Turns out it was the newspaper that was correct! The missing thirteen grand actually invested in US government bonds were bought before the mayor was elected. He was unaware of the bonds, if the paper ever got an apology I’m afraid we’ll never know.