Blue Talk

by Hugh Rawson

Our language is nothing if not colorful. A person can be said to be green with envy. Overly fancy writing is called purple prose. A coward is yellow or even yellow-bellied. A formal report may be described as a white paper. The demand for money in return for silence constitutes blackmail. Red-light districts are inhabited by prostitutes, who were known well into the twentieth century as scarlet women. The letter in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, was an A for Adultery. To be in a brown study is to be deep in thought. And so it goes.

But nothing beats blue, which probably appears in more phrases than all other colors combined. Moreover, blue has widely diverse meanings, both positive and negative. On the plus side, a blue blood is an aristocrat; a blue chip is the most valuable chip in gambling or, in the greater game of finance, a highly-rated stock, and a true blue is someone who shows unwavering loyalty to a faith or principle. On the other hand, blue also is strongly tinged with suggestions of indecency and obscenity. A blue word is a curse word; a string of curse words may be said to make the air blue. A blue joke is a dirty one (off-color, so to speak), a blue movie is pornographic, and a blue-nose is a prude.

The contradictory senses of blue have co-existed for many years. This doesn’t often happen in the English language. Usually, when a word has both good and bad meanings, the bad one takes over. Then the word may even be avoided entirely. A classic example is occupy, whose use as a euphemism for sexual intercourse – a man might be said to occupy his wife or go to a prostitute in an occupying house – led polite people to shun the word in any context for  most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Shakespeare noted the phenomenon in Henry IV, Part 2: “A captain! God’s light, these villains will make the word as odious as the word ‘occupy,’ which was an excellent word before it was ill-sorted.”

It is difficult in the case of most blue terms to say exactly how the different senses evolved. The word’s positive meanings seem to derive in a general way from the association of the color with the sky, or heavens, and from the steadfastness of blue dye, obtained in ancient times from a species of snail.  In heraldry, blue signifies purity and fidelity. In Christian art, the Virgin Mary typically is portrayed wearing a blue robe. Officers of the law, including police, have worn blue since Elizabethan times; this also was once the distinctive color of the clothes of servants and tradesmen. While the good meanings of the color may derive from the heavens, the negative ones appear to arise from the opposite direction: They reflect the fires of Hell, which are believed to burn with a sulfurous, bluish light. (“Brimstone” in the hellish phrase, “fire and brimstone,” is an old word for “sulfur.”)

 Here is a sampling of a few of the many other blue words and phrases:

blue. Sadness or melancholy; apparently derived from the older blue devils; often amplified in such phrases as to look blue, to be in a blue funk, and applied in the plural to such diverse conditions as the maternity blues and post-election blues. And yet another meaning, as given by John Russell Bartlett in his Dictionary of Americanisms (1848): “BLUE. A synonym in the tippler’s vocabulary for drunk.”  Blue-eyed means the same.

blue blazes.  Hell, sometimes as a euphemism: “Jack was mad as blue blazes.”

blue flu. A walk-out by police officers, i.e, bluecoats,  or other municipal employees who are forbidden from striking and claim that influenza or another disease has kept them from showing up for work.

blue law. A puritanical law, originally, in the colony of Connecticut, part of a code for regulating almost every aspect of daily life, up to and including the forbidding of mothers from kissing their babies on the Sabbath or another fasting day. In modern times these laws generally involve the prohibition of the sale of alcohol or the limitation of other business activities on Sundays. The first blue laws often are said to have been printed on blue paper, but this is a myth. The earliest example of the term in writing comes from a 1761 history of Connecticut by Rev. Samuel Peters, who may well have coined it as well as popularized it. Thanks to the Rev. Peters, Connecticut was nicknamed The Blue Law State.

blue Monday. The phrase reflects the joy with which many workers start each week.

blue moon, once in a. A rare happening; in an extended sense, one that is unlikely ever to occur. Atmospheric conditions may occasionally cause the moon to look blue, but blue here means “unusual.” The phrase refers to the appearance of an extra moon within a single three-month season. Because lunar months and calendar months are almost the same length, each month usually has just one full moon. The difference is enough, however, for four full moons to appear in the same season about once every three years. Folk wisdom has it that the blue moon is the third of the four full moons in such a season. 

blue pencil. To edit and, in an extended sense, to censor; from the use by editors of blue pencils so that their comments on manuscripts can be distinguished easily from those of others. The practice dates to at least the nineteenth century, but is falling into disuse as pencils give way to word processors.              

blue ribbon. The award for first prize or general excellence, parallel to the blue in blue chip.

blues.  A mournful style of African-American music, featuring slightly off-pitch blue notes; popularized by the  trumpet player, bandleader, and composer, W. C. Handy (Memphis Blues, 1912).

blue-sky.  Pertaining to an investment of a highly risky or even fraudulent nature; a person who habitually makes plans or promises that cannot possibly be fulfilled is a blue-sky artist. A blue-sky budget is an initial proposal that includes everything possible that might be wanted even though the proposer knows that much of it will never be funded.

blue-stocking. A literary woman, usually disparaging. Oddly, the first blue-stocking was not a woman, but a man, Benjamin Stillingfleet, botanist, author, and minor poet. Stillingfleet habitually wore blue worsted stockings rather than dressy black ones when attending evening gatherings that were hosted by some of London’s leading ladies in the 1750s for the purpose of discussing intellectual affairs instead of, more usual at the time, playing cards. When Stillingfleet failed to appear, the conversation lagged, and it was remarked, according to James Bowell in his Life of Johnson, that “We can do nothing without the blue stockings.” And the name stuck in time to the ladies themselves.

Most of these phrases remain current, though the last one is verging on obsolescence, in our liberated age when any male’s dismissal of a woman as a blue-stocking is likely to elicit a blue reply if not a black eye.

10 thoughts on “Blue Talk

  1. Harry

    “Blue-eyed” can also be a synonym for “Caucasian” or “white,” as in the “blue-eyed soul” of the Righteous Brothers or Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE.

    And let’s not forget Jimi Hendrix’s “purple haze,” meaning a drug-induced euphoria, a term that sounds almost quaint today.

  2. Yes, about “blue-eyed,” etc. :Blue” phrase go on and on, and I could just give a sampling. William Gass, the novelist, wrote an entire book on the subject some years ago, entitled “:On Being Blue.” I don’t think this book, albeit a short one, includes all the variations on “blue” have been collected by lexicographers and others over the years.

  3. Rosemary

    How interesting about the word “occupy.” It gives me hope that favorite words I used as a child will return in a few hundred years without the least hint of prurience. For now, I’ll just have to call my cat “Kitty.”

    1. Kitty might have to wait a while, but times do change, as indicated by the following line from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin:” (1852): “‘What do you think, pussy?’ said her father to Eva.”

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