Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Blimey

Posted by Elyse Bruce on March 31, 2016

Sometimes you’ll hear people say blimey or cor blimey as if they were residents of the UK.  The exclamation is one used to express surprise, excitement, or alarm.  The thing is, it seems to be used far more often by Americans and Canadians than by those from the UK.

Of course, part of the linkage is due to how blimey is used.  For example, in the March 27, 2016 Windsor Star in Windsor (Ontario, Canada), Sharon Hill reported on a British store and gift shop in Harrow, Ontario.  Set to celebrate its second anniversary in April, the shop is named Blimeys British Store and Gift Shop, and the article was titled, “Blimey: Award-winning British Shop In Harrow Still Surprising Customers.”

The previous week, Mike Tighe of the LaCross Tribune in Wisconsin (USA) wrote about the La Crosse Community Theatre auditions for their anticipated presentation of “Billy Elliot.”  The journalist made sure to use all kinds of British slang.  He made sure to mention that damp squib was British slang for total failure, and that gobsmacked was British slang for stunned.  He made sure readers knew that blinding was British slang for superb, and he made sure to include blimey in the headline, “Blimey: LCT Gets Smashing Cast for Billy Elliot.”

Even Sergio Ramos — who happens to be a Real Madrid defender — used the expression in an article published in Diario AS published in Madrid (Spain) on March 30, 2016.

Sometimes, when I’m in the shower, I start singing my head off. Lyrics just come to me and I think, ‘Blimey, what a lovely tune!’. For me, music’s a big part of my life and I take it into my professional life and share it with my team mates, and enjoy it.”

But do British newspapers and journalists use the word?  James Hall of the Telegraph used it in his  March 25, 2016 review of Ellie Goulding’s performance.  Near the end of his review titled, “Ellie Goulding Needs To Find Her Personality,” he wrote:

The other reason that Goulding needs a break was her banter. I got no sense of her personality from her between-song chat. Of course, Adele-style ‘cor blimey’ expletive-laden confessionals are not for everyone, but Goulding missed a chance to connect. There’s a fine line between saying you’re shy and appearing like you’re going through the motions.

In the 1997 play, “Home: A Play In Two Acts” by English playwright, screenwriter, award-winning novelist and a former professional rugby league player, David Storey (born 13 July 1933), the expression made its way into the Kathleen’s dialogue near the beginning of Act I.

MARJORIE:
Going to rain, ask me.

KATHLEEN:
Rain all it wants, ask me.  Cor … blimey!  Going to kill he is this.

MARJORIE:
Going to rain and catch us out here.  That’s what it’s going to do.

KATHLEEN:
Going to rain all right, in’t it?  Going to rain all right … Put your umbrella up — Sun’s still shining.  Cor blimey.  Invite rain that will.  Commonsense girl … Cor blimey .. My bleedin’ feet.

MARJORIE:
Out here and no shelter.  Be all right if it starts.

KATHLEEN:
Cor blimey … ‘Surprise me they don’t drop off … Cut clean through these will.

MARJORIE:
Clouds all over.  Told you we shouldn’t have come out.

KATHLEEN:
Get nothing if you don’t try, girl … Cor blimey!

Years earlier, as  American playwright and Nobel laureate in Literature, Eugene O’Neill (16 October 1888 – 27 November 1953) began to make waves in the theater with his plays, what critics called his “most interesting play” hit its stride with a meteoric rise.

The Emperor Jones” told the story of an African-American who was an ex-Pullman porter who arrives in the West Indies, and within two years of arriving in the West Indies, Brutus Jones makes himself emperor.  The play begins during a difficult time, after Brutus Jones has been in power for several years, and has amassed a large fortune thanks to the heavy taxes he imposed on the islanders he rule.  But times are not easy as rebellion is brewing in the capital.  A Cockney trader named Smithers is responsible for using blimey in the play.

SMITHERS:
Then you ain’t so foxy as I thought you was.  Where’s all your court?  The Generals and the Cabinet Ministers and all?

JONES:
Where dey mostly runs to minute I closes my eyes — drinkin’ rum and talkin’ big down in de town.  How come you don’t know dat?  Ain’t you sousin’ with ’em most every day?

SMITHERS:
That’s part of the day’s work.  I got ter — ain’t I — in my business?

JONES:
Yo’ business!

SMITHERS:
Gawd blimey, you was glad enough for me ter take you in on it when you landed here first.  You didn’t ‘ave no ‘igh and mighty airs in them days!

JONES:
Talk polite, white man!  Talk polite, you heah me!  I’m boss heah now, is you forgettin’?

SMITHERS:
No ‘arm meant, old top.

INTERESTING NOTE 1:  Eugene O’Neill was the father of Oona O’Neill (14 May 1925 – 27 September 1991), who was the fourth and last wife of English actor and filmmaker. Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977).

INTERESTING NOTE 2:  During WWI, there was a soft cap with ear flaps that was known as the Gor blimey.  It was replaced in 1917 by a soft cap without flaps that looked more like military wear than the Gor blimey.   Many soldiers held on to their Gor blimey caps for winter weather anyway, due in large part to the ear flaps that helped keep their ears warm.

In Volume I of “Slang and its Analogues Past and Present: A Dictionary, Historical and Comparative, of the Heterodox Speech of All Classes of Society For More Than Three Hundred Years” by John Stephen Farmer (7 March 1854 – 18 January 1916) published in 1890 (and of which only 750 copies were printed for subscribers only) this definition was given for blimey.

A corruption of ‘Blind me!’; an expression little enough understood by those who constantly have it in their mouths.

A year earlier in 1889, Albert Marie Victor Barrère (died 1896) and Charles Godfrey Leland (1824–1903) published, “A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies’ Jargon and Other Irregular Phraseology.”  In Volume I, the definition for blimey is slightly different from that of Farmer’s dictionary.

Blimey (common), an apparently meaningless, abusive term.

Prior to this published entry, however, the only references to Blimey are those referring to a person’s last name such as John Blimey or Anna Blimey or some other Blimey.

It’s a fact that swearing was frowned upon during this era, and as such, substituting minced oaths was popular.  While Idiomation is unable to state definitively when blimey and cor blimey were first used, it’s reasonable to believe that they were both popular buzz phrases for the era in the 1880s, and continued to be used in the 20th century.

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