Thursday, September 20, 2007

Blue on Blue

Lately, for a variety of reasons, I've been using more profanity than usual. Just today a minor curse word escaped my lips in conversation with a woman I'd just met, and in a business scenario. She didn't blink at it and we moved on, but inside I was peeved.

Come on Mr. Word Player, you're better than that.

And as I'm sure you know, I'm not the only one. America is cursing up an unprecedented blue streak with no signs of a slowdown, let alone a return to more genteel public discourse.

All of this shit-talking got me wondering a while back how the word "blue" got associated with profanity and risqué business. Mrs. Word Player found an interesting post about it on, where they dispelled the urban myth that American "blue laws" were so-called because they were printed on blue paper.

Picasso's "Blue Period" was fucking awesome

Apparently our 17th century Puritan forefathers and -mothers enacted a series of "blue laws" that regulated people's "moral behavior", especially as concerning the Sabbath day. Variances of these sorts of laws evolved into the 19th and 20th century temperance movements and to some degree explain why you can't buy booze until such-and-such o'clock on Sundays in so many states.

You get an interesting dichotomy of meaning when you look up the word blue, as seen by these two side-by-side definitions found at Merriam Webster's site:


Huh. Blue means puritanical AND profane (not to mention "low in spirits").

Look it up at the Online Etymology Dictionary, and all you get is:

Blue (adj.) "lewd" is recorded from 1840; the sense connection is unclear, and is opposite to that in blue laws (q.v.)

Pornographic films used to be called "blue movies."

The most popular color for toothbrushes is blue (which is helpful for when you're washing your mouth out after using blue language.)

Warhol's "Blue Period" was less awesome...

And then there's the term "working blue" and/or "blue comedy", which would appear to come from the same (blue?) vein. Mrs. Word Player and I joke with one another about how we love it when the other is working blue (the comment that usually follows an unexpected or particularly filthy outburst of obscenity.

My good friends at Wikipedia had this interesting info about blue comedy:

Blue comedy is comedy that is off-color, risqué, indecent, profane, or obscene[1]. It often contains cursing and/or sexual imagery that shocks and offends many audiences.

The term comes from the music hall comedian Max Miller who kept all his adult jokes in a blue coloured notebook. 'Working blue' refers to the act of performing this type of material.

one can only imagine Mary's X-rated activities

Wow. Can it really be true that "blue comedy" would have been called "orange comedy" if Max Miller had bought a different style of notebook?

I have a faint memory of the first time I heard a reference to blue comedy, naturally attached to the colorful Redd Foxx. I imagine we'll all be cursing a blue streak when the ill-advised feature film adaptation SANFORD AND SON comes to a theater near us.

Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.
–Mark Twain (1835-1910)

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