Posted by Brad on February 18, 2008 at 09:33:
In Reply to: Blue streak posted by Smokey Stover on February 15, 2008 at 01:30:
: : : : : I have found several threads in the archives relating to the phrase "blue streak" or "curse a blue streak."
: : : : : I was surprised that nobody seemed to get to the bottom of this expression which actually arose during the days of vaudeville. In vaudeville there were the family or "legit" houses (as opposed to less reputable venues that might have featured strip tease, etc.). Anyway, these major theatres had very strict rules about appropriate language and any performer who cursed on stage would be reprimanded in writing and on a blue piece of paper. Several violations would mean that you basically lost the right to perform at their theatre. Consequently, the phrase 'blue streak' or 'curse a blue streak' grew to be synonymous with being "off-color" or inappropriate.
: : : : : I know I have read this is several sources but am surprised there doesn't seem to be a lot on web about this. Anybody else familiar with this version of the story? I'm 99% certain that it is an accurate account.
: : : : Here are my notes on "blue."
: : : : BLUE - According to "Listening to America" by Stuart Berg Flexner, (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1982) "blue movies, 1950s (was derived) from the 1864 use of 'blue' to refer to indecent or obscene talk."
: : : : The "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" states: "blue. According to the 'Dictionary of American Slang, 'blue' in the sense of risqué or bordering on the obscene has been current since about the turn of the century and it suggests that 'blue' got this meaning 'perhaps because the color blue is associated with burning brimstone.' Well, perhaps - but that doesn't square with its use by people in show business, especially the more raffish kinds of show business like nightclubs and burlesque.it was standard practice to change the color filters on spotlights when the star dancer went into the gamier parts of her act. A favorite color used during these portions of her act was blue, so 'dipping into the blue,' as the common expression went, may well have come from this change in color of the spotlight." The Morris Dictionary has a separate entry on the term blue laws. But it doesn't explain how they come to this conclusion: "The New York Times reported that the name derives from Puritan legislation, regulating Sabbath conduct, printed on blue paper in the theocratic New Haven colony in the 17th century.' That's a nice story, but the truth is simpler. The 'blue' in 'blue law' is simply a synonym for 'puritanical' or 'strict.'"
: : : For another view, see our archive, s.v. talk a blue streak. See, specifically,
: : : http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/55/messages/86.html
: : As has already been pointed out, "talk a blue streak" doesn't mean "talk profanely", it means "talk fast and plenty". So to curse "a blue streak" would mean the profanities come out in a long excited rush --- but the 'blue' in this case remains part of the unitary expression 'blue-streak' (and it may be helpful to think of it as if it were hyphenated).
: : It is nothing but coincidence that we also have 'blue' (meaning 'indecent') language. Where and how such language got its name is hard to find out. The tale about blue-paper reprimands from theater management sounds belabored and unlikely. I think the connection is to the blue light used in theatrical effects, not for strippers, but to represent the mephitic glow of hell-fire. Blue phosphors were already in use for this in the seventeenth century (and who knows? maybe earlier); moreover the practice was widely shared among theater professionals, and so would have been readily understood as a reference point, unlike the rerprimand from manager to performer, which would have varied from company to company even if there were any formal systems at all.
: The expression "blue murder" used to be common enough for those silly British comics to have put out a film called "Blue Murder at St. Trinians," which in its day was thought rather funny--but, alas, not indecent, although faintly suggestive.
OK, I was able to track down the sources of my connection between vaudeville and "blue material." It appears that theatre managers reinforced the connection between profanity and the color blue, but as many of you have pointed out, the relationship already existed in various forms.
Sophie Tucker's autobiography, "Some of These Days," (Garden City NY: Doubleday Doran & Co, 1945), pp. 148-149.
"Between the (Monday) matinee and the night show the blue envelopes began to appear in the performers mailboxes backstage ... Inside would be a curt order to cut out a blue line of a song, or piece of business. ... There was no arguing about the orders in the blue envelopes. They were final. You obeyed them or quit. And if you quit, you got a black mark against your name in the head office and you didn't work on the Keith Circuit anymore. During my early years on the Keith Circuit, I took my orders from my blue envelope and ... no matter what I said or did backstage (and it was plenty) ... when I went on for the Monday night show, I was careful to keep within bounds."
Also found this quoted from "Once Upon a Stage" by Samuels and Samuels(NY: Dodd Mead & Co, 1974)
"Don't say 'slob' or 'son of a gun' or 'hully gee'* on the stage unless you want to be canceled peremptorily.
*'hully gee' is short for 'Holy Jesus!' -- makes sense, had never really thought about it!