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Blue murder

Q From Evan Parry, New Zealand: I’ve checked your World Wide Words dictionary, but the expression blue murder doesn’t appear. A friend remarked about his child when she was restrained in a supermarket, she screamed blue murder. I know its meaning, but why blue, and why murder?

A This idiom is largely restricted to Commonwealth countries. Americans prefer to cry bloody murder, which is more expressive and easier to understand. Either way, it means to make a noisy and extravagant protest.

As long as the bite does not come in the form of double-digit inflation, it’s all sweetness. Cross that mark, and they’re all screaming blue murder. The middle-class loves a free lunch, subsidised healthcare and education.

The Hindustan Times, 6 Aug. 2011.

Using colours as metaphors for emotion is probably as old as human language, though they’re deeply determined by culture. In English we have phrases such as white with rage, green with jealousy, see red, yellow streak and tickled pink. The emotional associations of blue are more varied than those of most colours. It has among others indicated constancy (true blue), strained with effort or emotion (blue in the face), indecent or obscene (blue movie) and fear or depression (as in blue funk, which in the UK means to be in a state of fear but in the US to be depressed).

In an old entry, the Oxford English Dictionary puts blue murder in a section that links it with hurtful things, particularly plagues or pestilences, which may come from an old superstition about candles burning blue as an omen of death. But it seems just as likely that it derives from the same sense as that in the English version of blue funk, which dates from much the same period — the early part of the nineteenth century.

Bloody murder in its semi-literal sense is much older: it goes back at least to the sixteenth century:

There’s not a hollow cave or lurking-place,
No vast obscurity or misty vale,
Where bloody murder or detested rape
Can couch for fear but I will find them out.

Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, c1591.

This sense was still the usual one in Britain in the period in which blue murder appeared and remained so afterwards. The figurative meaning of bloody murder is peculiarly American and began to appear in the 1860s, usually in the form yell bloody murder. There seems to be no direct link between the two phrases. In particular, blue murder doesn’t appear to be a euphemism for bloody murder.

This feline couplet is the earliest example I’ve so far found:

Till in the trap caught, by their tails both so taught,
Molrow and blue murder, they cried, sirs.

The Cats, An Original Comic Song, by Michael Hall, in The Melodist, and Mirthful Olio: an Elegant Collection of the Most Popular Songs &c., London, 1829. Taught is an old spelling of taut; molrow may be from miaow but is nearer in sense to caterwauling; one sense of the close relative molrowing is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the practice of socializing with a disreputable woman”.

The expression must have been fairly common by then, because it turns up in another song in the same collection.

The association with murder came about because our instinct on being faced with violent assault is to shout loudly in fear. Here’s a case where the link is made explicit:

He was quite naked at the time, and screamed out “Murder,” when the prisoner said, “I’ll give you blue murder,” at the same time striking him repeatedly over the back, shoulders, and arms, until the handle of the whip broke in two.

Morning Chronicle (London), 9 Jan. 1855.

However, most shouts of blue murder have been about more trivial matters and the expression has become a disapproving comment that points up the disparity between the amount of noise and the petty nature of the protest: “anyone would think you were being murdered, the noise you were making”.

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Page created 17 Sep 2011