Monday, January 23, 2012

The writer didn't blue it after all

A British veteran of colonial Burma and WWII wrote of another former "forest man," his colleague in the teak harvesting trade:
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.


John Cowan said...

It occurs in Dorothy Sayers's 1935 Gaudy Night. Harriet is talking to Saint-George (Peter's graceless nephew):

“He’s done far more than you asked him,” she pointed out. “So far as I can see, there’s nothing to prevent you from drawing a cheque for fifty thousand and blueing the lot.”

Kay L. Davies said...

Yessss! I knew I remembered that use of "blue" from somewhere, and it's as John Cowan said. I've read all Dorothy L. Sayers's books many times.

Yerameyahu said...

The only place I've heard this is Tommy Makem's Irish folk song 'Johnny McEldoo'. Here are the lyrics of that verse; in this case, it's transcribed as 'blew'
"There was Johnny McEldoo and McGee and me
And a couple of two or three went on the spree one day
We had a bob or two, which we knew how to blew
And the beer and whiskey flew and we all felt gay"

Dan Archibald said...

I ran across the usage in one of Arthur Ransom's "Swallows and Amazons" series, where it was perfectly clear in context; I took it for English schoolboy slang. I don't remember which book it was in and I can't find it now, but they were published in the 30s and 40s.

Jan said...

Thanks for the Sayers cite, John Cowan. I've actually read "Gaudy Night" more than once without noticing that "blueing" -- or at least without remembering it long enough to investigate (a common enough circumstance, I'm afraid).

Gregory Lee said...

Here, I think I found one:

"Yes, what have yer done with yer half-gallon, eh?" asked the Crow derisively. "Someone stole it," said the sufferer.

"He's been an' blued it," squealed someone. "Been an' blued it to buy a Sunday veskit with! Oh, ain't he a vicked young man?" And the speaker hid his head under the blankets, in humorous affectation of modesty.

-- at
-- from

languagehat said...

So is this "blue" an entirely separate verb that just happens to sound like the past of "blow," or is it somehow developed from that? Does either Green or the OED give an etymology?

Jan said...

Hi LH! Both Green and OED present "blue/blued/blued" as a variation on the (already slang)"blow/blew/blown," which makes me think it was probably an ntentional language joke that caught on for a while. Like "casting asparagus" or "suave" to rhyme with "rave" ...

David L said...

Growing up in England in the 60s and 70s, blue/blued was normal usage to me. When I first came across blow/blew, I thought that was a mistake, and probably some sort of dastardly Americanism. Has the "blue" version disappeared from England now? (I don't live there anymore...)

Picky said...

No it hasn't vanished from England - not while I'm alive. I use it (but then I'm v. ancient).

Picky said...

Interestingly-ish, Barrère and Leland's C19th dictionary of slang posits an alternative etymology, viz to lose something into the blue. They suggest German has a similar slang verb, blauen. (One would prefer to blue ones hard-earned on the likelihood that Jonathon Green is right.)

dearieme said...

To "blew/blue" money was perfectly ordinary English when Iwuzzaboy - I'm not sure I ever saw it written, but I'd have bet on "blew" as the spelling.

Picky said...

But what was its past tense, dearieme?

charlieboyofbeech said...

OK, I arrived at this discussion at little late, when I anted to write an email that included the phrase "he blewed the lot", and realised I didn't know whether it ought to read "he blued the lot", a phrase often used by my father, whose own dad was an senior army office who at one time served in India.
A much more recent reference can be found in the wonderful 1981 Talking Heads song, "Once in a lifetime" includes the lyric, "Into the blue again/after the money's gone". I always assumed that this was a description of life after the money has been 'blued'.