Many states have what are known as “Blue Laws”—legislation forbidding certain activities on Sundays and holidays. The rationale, a holdover from Puritan colonists, is that everyone ought to be in church for most of Sunday—not shopping or, especially, not drinking alcoholic beverages.
Though most of the strictures have been greatly relaxed over the years Blue Laws still exist to some degree almost everywhere. But why is such a law “blue”?
Theories abound. Some say it’s because the first such laws in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1656, were printed on blue paper or bound in books with blue covers. There’s no reliable evidence, however, that this is true.
And, anyway, the term “blue law” is not seen until the eighteenth century, first in 1755 in the New-York Mercury, and then again in 1781, when the Rev. Samuel Peters wrote in The General History of Connecticut, “Blue laws, i.e. bloody laws, for they were all sanctified with whipping, cutting off the ears, burning the tongue, and death.” From Peters’ comment, blue law is thus thought by some to be a corruption of blood law.
Other theories point to a contemptuous reference to strict moralists as “bluebloods” who imposed their prohibitions on the rest of the populace. Another etymologist speculates that blue was used because it represents the notion of coldness.
Bluestocking was a term used to refer to Oliver Cromwell’s moralistic Puritan supporters in 1653.
Curiously, in the nineteenth century, blue acquired an almost opposite meaning—“lewd, profane, or obscene.’’ An 1824 Scottish encyclopedia refers to Thread o’Blue as meaning “any little smutty touch in song-singing, chatting, or piece of writing.” Thomas Carlyle refers to blueness as meaning “indecent or indelicate” in an 1840 essay.
This meaning is said to originate in the blue dresses that were issued to prostitutes in French houses of correction. To “go into the blue” meant to “go astray.”
But another slang authority suggests the term comes from the Bibliothèque Bleue, a series of almanacs in blue covers published in France from the early seventeenth century and often containing popular literature with a lurid touch. Blue is also associated with devils and flames of hell—a blue flame indicates a devil is present (or, maybe, just natural gas). From this concept we get the term blue blazes.
Blue has also been associated since the sixteenth century with sadness and despondency, as in feeling blue or having the blues, probably originating in the concept of a blue devil, as Satan was sometimes depicted in medieval art, which supposedly brought on unhappiness.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou thinks blue is an overworked color. He feels that puce and taupe have never been given their due, and he would like to see a lot more of them in the future.
After waiting some while in a queue
To use an unoccupied loo,
I lacked the small pittance
Required for admittance,
And that made me terribly blue.
Oh, oh, how I needed to go!
But I couldn’t come up with the dough,
I hopped on one leg
And started to beg,
But the people around me said, “No.”
To help me out of this pickle
Some strangers advanced me a nickel,
I copiously thanked ‘em
And entered the sanctum,
But by this time just managed a trickle.