Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Blue Murder

Posted by Elyse Bruce on June 17, 2013

Blue murder (which is not to be mistaken for any other kind of murder) is a loud or impassioned outcry, or a horrible din.  Young children are said to have perfected this cry as parents from generation to generation have oftentimes exclaimed that some child is crying blue murder when the child is carrying on.

On September 23, 1971 a news story from Canberra was reported in The Age newspaper of Melbourne, Australia was published.  The story was aptly entitled, “Blue Murder, But It Has To Be Funny” and began with this lead-in

Comedians could get away with blue murder in what they said on broadcasts, as long as they were funny, Dudley Moor said yesterday. But the proceedings at the National Press Club lunch at which Dudley and his partner Peter Cook appeared were not funny enough to pass the ABC censor unscathed.

When James O’Donnell Bennett wrote a Special Report for the Morning Leader newspaper edition of September 23, 1927 readers were glued to every single detail about the championship fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey in Chicago.  It was a messy situation from start to finish, with the title of the piece being, “Dempsey’s Men caught Trying To Smear Vaseline.”  At one point, the following was reported:

His people, however, squawked blue murder and rightly so.  Their screaming of “rabbit punches, Dave” — addressed to Referee David Barry — began in the fourth round when Dempsey landed three rabbit punches on the base of Tunney’s skull.

In Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book “Anne’s House Of Dreams” which was published in 1917, the expression blue murder is used in Chapter 35 entitled, “Politics At Four Winds.”  The chapter opens up at the point where Canada is in the midst of a political campaign and the political views of the Grits and the Tories are presented.  In this chapter the following passage is found:

“He’d have done it, too, and Gus knew it, for Marshall is as strong as an ox and Gus is only a midget of a man. So he gave in and towed Marshall in to the shop and went to work. `Now,’ says he, `I’ll barber you up, but if you say one word to me about the Grits getting in while I’m doing it I’ll cut your throat with this razor,’ says he. You wouldn’t have thought mild little Gus could be so bloodthirsty, would you? Shows what party politics will do for a man. Marshall kept quiet and got his hair and beard disposed of and went home. When his old housekeeper heard him come upstairs she peeked out of her bedroom door to see whether ’twas him or the hired boy. And when she saw a strange man striding down the hall with a candle in his hand she screamed blue murder and fainted dead away. They had to send for the doctor before they could bring her to, and it was several days before she could look at Marshall without shaking all over.”

John S. Farmer alleges in his book of 1890 entitled, “Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present” that:

Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE.  Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dearest and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shares of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn.

Needless to say, the expression and its definition can be found in the 1968 edition of J.C. Hotten’s “The Slang Dictionary Or The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases And Fast Expressions Of High And Low Society.”

In London, England a delightful folio of songs entitled, “The Melodist and Mirthful Olio: An Elegant Collection Of The Most Popular Songs” was published in 1829.  In this collection, there’s a song known as “The Cats: An Original Comic Song” written by Michael Hall, and in this song, the following couplet is found:

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

For those who aren’t in the know, molrowing is the “practice of socializing with a disreputable woman” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.  Oh my! What were those kittens getting themselves into?!

According to the “Classical Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue” compiled by Francis Grose and published in 1785, blue was defined thusly:

To look blue; to be confounded, terrified, or disappointed.  Blue as a razor; perhaps, blue as azure.

And somewhere between 1785 and 1829, the words blue and murder became blue murder … an expression in its own right.

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