Who’s Got the Blues?

blue moon

I had no idea what I was in for when I looked up the definition of the word “blue.”

I was particularly interested in its use as an indicator of questionable decency, such as a “blue movie” or “blue language.” I knew I would run into descriptions of the color, of course, but I never thought about how many ways the word is actually used in the English language or how many meanings it has.

You can be a blue-blood, a bluestocking, a bluenose, or be born a blue baby with a heart defect and cyanotic skin. Baby blues can be a description of someone’s enchanting eyes, or baby blues can be the feeling of sadness a woman may experience after giving birth. You can put bluing in your laundry to make the whites whiter, live in a blue state, or get caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

A blue ribbon puts you in first place, but feeling blue means you’re depressed or sad. Having or singing the blues signifies low spirits or feeling melancholy, while music known as the blues is defined as jazz or popular music using specific harmonic and phrase structures.

Doing something until you’re blue in the face means it’s hopeless and going nowhere. Something coming out of the blue is a surprise. Once in a blue moon indicates something that happens rarely, but with the current definition of a blue moon, they are actually not so rare. A blue moon was defined as the second full moon in one calendar month, which doesn’t happen all that often. However, now it’s also used to indicate the third of four full moons in a season, which makes it much more common.

Most interesting are the contradictory definitions around morality. A bluenose is a person with puritanical values. Blue language or a blue movie is defined as obscene, coarse, crude, dirty, indecent, lascivious, lewd, profane, smutty, trashy, and so on.

As should happen in any excursion into etymology, I learned a couple of new words: bluestocking and billingsgate.

A bluestocking is a woman having intellectual or literary interests. The term was an attempted put-down in mid-18th century England when learning was considered to be an inappropriate pursuit for a woman. The women in question deflated the put-down by embracing it and calling themselves the Blue Stocking Society.

And billingsgate? It’s a noun defined as “coarsely abusive language.” Billingsgate was a centuries-old fish market in London, England, known for the crude and vulgar language continuously used by the fishmongers, male and female alike. To be subjected to billingsgate is to be subjected to foul language.

Interestingly, one term that did not show up spontaneously was “blue-hair,” meaning an elderly person, often with white hair having a bluish tinge. When I specifically searched for the term, two separate sources used the same sentence as an example of its use, each referring to getting “the blue-hairs off the road.” Hmmph.

What other uses of the word “blue” have I missed?

Post Script: My husband wants to know how I could forget blue balls. And we’re not talking bocce here, folks.

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