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shameless pleading





Blue Streak

Pay no attention to the twitching.

Dear Word Detective:  I was wondering if you could help me find the origin of the phrase “blue streak” as in “talk a blue streak” or “curse a blue streak.”  The only thing I could find was that it might have something to do with lightning. — Eric.

Good question, but before we begin, I would strongly advise against having anything to do with lightning, and I speak from personal experience.  Three years ago this month I had a close encounter with ball lightning (yes, it most certainly does exist), and some people say I haven’t been quite right ever since.  Apart from a tendency to cry when I eat oatmeal and bark when I’m angry, however, I can’t imagine what they’re talking about.  Anyway, lightning is definitely nasty stuff.

Onward.  Human beings have identified a wide spectrum of colors (and catalog copywriters are constantly inventing new ones), but when it comes to popular figures of speech, “blue” takes the prize for both number and variety of senses.  We speak, for example, of sadness or depression as “the blues,” although no one has ever come up with a convincing explanation why.  “Blues” music does often center on depressing “blue” subjects (lover left, dog died, etc.), but that “blue” may actually be a reference to the genre’s use of “blue notes,” halfway between proper scale notes.  Elsewhere, “blue blood” is said to signify royalty or high social class, but was originally just a reference to very light skin, which made the oxygen-rich blood in one’s veins visible under the skin.  The opposite of the blue-blooded idle rich are, of course, “blue-collar” workers, so-called for the denim shirts that once were standard factory wear.

Some towns in the US still enforce “blue laws” forbidding or restricting certain activities on Sundays, but the origin of the term has been lost in the mists of time along with the Puritans who concocted the laws.  And, at the other end of the spectrum, we have the slightly antiquated (but equally mysterious) adjective “blue” meaning “obscene,” which dates to the 1820s (and thus predates “blue movies” by a century).  It’s possible, however, that “blue” in the “porn” sense arose from the term “blue laws” being generalized to mean any kind of censorious legislation.

Meanwhile, as the stock exchange tumbles and staid “blue chip” stocks take a beating, it’s appropriate to note that “blue chip” meaning “top rank, best” comes from the highest denomination chips in the very un-staid game of poker, which are traditionally blue.

All of which brings us to “blue streak,” which means “with great intensity or speed” and originated in the US in the early 18th century.  In all likelihood, the term did arise by analogy to the speed and force of a bolt of lightning, especially in “talk a blue streak,” meaning to speak rapidly and excitedly.  The “blue” in “curse a blue streak” probably also invokes “blue” in the sense of “obscene.”  A similar phrase, “blue blazes” (“And the two Jacobs swore like blue blazes agin him,”1858), was originally a reference to the fires of Hell, where it is said that brimstone burns with a pale blue flame.

5 comments to Blue Streak

  • Joy

    > We speak, for example, of sadness or depression as “the blues,” although no one has ever come up with a convincing explanation why. “Blues” music . . . .

    Pre- birth of “Blues” music (in the 1920s?), the painters (Van Gogh and?) Picasso had their “blue periods” in which they painted their canvases mostly in blue to signify in color their (for the time being) somber pensiveness, domination by thought –as opposed to the joyous riots of red (color of liberation of the redblooded passions) and other intensely bright colors of the late 1800s French painting movement Fauveism (from French word fauve, wild beast). And in early 1800s English Romantic writers wrote of lady intellectuals as “Bluestockings” (likely because they wore them), and for short “the Blues.” (E.g., Byron’s witty Hudibrastic rhyme “Ye lords of ladies intellectual, in truth, have they not henpecked you all?” So blue (dark shades of melancholy to “baby” or “sky” light tints) seems to be the color of thought, in its complete range of emotional tenors (from anguished to lightly, innocently, purely pleasant) and intensities (expressed on a scale of admixtures from black to white). And same, red, but it expressing emotion — from dark anger to sweet blushes and lightest, innocent baby pink and sanguine good health.

  • J.

    I do hope that your encounter with the lightning strike did not cause you to forget important sources, but I’m afraid that you’re quite wrong about the etymology of the “blue” in the sense of depression. It comes from an eighteenth-century British expression “to be blue-deviled.” The thought was that blue devils were responsible for causing low spirits, and it’s a short linguistic step from being “blue-deviled” to being “blue.” The expression was carried across the Atlantic, and, in the nineteenth century, a new genre of music was born.

  • Steve

    The phrase “Blue Streak” originated during the battle of the Sacramento River (part of the Mexican American War) in 1847. The Mexican artillery shells, due to a combination of lousy gunpowder and high altitude, left streaks of blue across the sky as they were fired at the Americans. This allowed US soldiers to simply dodge them. After that, “Blue Streak” became sysnomous with fast. Although the Americans were outnumbered 3 to 1, they comletely roputed the Mexicans.
    Another term- “Gringos” also supposedly came from the Mexican American war. Mexicans heard the marching Americans singing “Green Grows the grass of my Kentucky Home” and started referring to them as Gringos.

  • It was my understanding that “blue-bloods” refers not to the oxygen-rich blood pumped out of the lungs, which is bright red and passes through deeply buried arteries; but to the oxygen-starved blood returning to the lungs, which is much darker and flows through the veins, which are much close to the skin). It was noted that many of the nobility, Russians in particular, had very pale, very thin skin, which made these veins appear bluer than those of commoners.

  • Ufuk

    Please take a look at magpie (bird) pictures. You would see a bird with blue streak on the plumage closer to tail. A magpie chatters, talks a lot. Gossip-related words are related to magpies. There is a room in a place in Sintra, Portugal (sala das pegas) where magpies are inscribed on the ceilings and related to gossip.

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