Nor can I ever explain what possessed him to blue all his savings he had accumulated towards the enjoyment of one leave, on the invention and patenting of a form of head protection which should supersede the solar topee in the dry season and the umbrella during the monsoons.The author is J.H. “Elephant Bill” Williams, and my friend Vicki Croke, who’s working on a book about Williams, sent me the puzzling quote. How, we wondered, could a native speaker of English come up with the blue in that sentence? And how could the editor of the 1953 book in which it appears have missed it?
If Williams had used the past tense, writing “he blue his savings” would look like just a slip, an accidental substitution of blue for blew. But neither spelling makes sense in the infinitive form: “to blue all his savings” and “to blew all his savings” are equally unacceptable.
Our speculation, it turned out, was a waste of time and brainpower; the answer was at my fingertips, in Jonathon Green’s imposing new Green's Dictionary of Slang.* This blue, says Green, is just a variant of the slang blow, “to squander, to waste.” His earliest example is from the periodical Wild Boys of London (1866): “Sich an hawful lot of coin I’ve blued, too.” (Blue, unlike blow, is conjugated as a regular verb: I blue it, I blued it, I have blued it.)
The OED lists the slang blue too, with citations from 1846 to as recently as 1959, when the Observer used it in what sounds like another description of British colonial life: “Men in cotton shirts and corduroys met there to ‘blue’ their cheques on supplies and on fiery colonial rum.” Google Books also has several examples; the latest I could find came from Anthony Burgess's 1963 novel, "Inside Mr. Enderby":
'An' I blued it all on booze in town. I think I'd better come up there,' he added, bold. 'I could sleep on the couch or something.'Maybe this blue was chiefly British usage, and maybe, despite its century-long career, it was never truly widespread. But if Burgess could use it in 1963, there's no reason to think Williams's editor, 10 years earlier, would have balked at it -- however odd "he blued it" looks today.
*FTC disclosure: Oxford University Press sent me a review copy of Green's Dictionary of Slang.