Q: In A Pocketful of Rye, a 1953 mystery by Agatha Christie, Lance Fortescue says, “I blued my pocket money, he saved his.” Lance, the son of a wealthy financier, is comparing his handling of money to that of his brother. Do the British still use “blue” the way Americans use “blow”?
A: The slang use of both “blow” and “blue” to mean squander showed up in Britain in the 19th century, though only the profligate “blow” made it across the Atlantic, as far as we can tell.
Is “blue” still used in the UK for that sense? Perhaps, but not very often. We haven’t seen any published examples since the early 1990s.
Oxford Dictionaries Online describes the use of “blue” to mean “squander or recklessly spend” as a “dated, informal” British usage, and gives this example: “It is again time to break open a bottle of bubbly and to blue our money till kingdom comes.”
The most recent citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Arcadia, a 1992 novel by the English writer Jim Crace: “These were the sort of boys who made their cash like tough old men, and blued it all on sweets, and toys, and cigarettes.”
The OED describes the usage as slang of uncertain origin, but speculates that it may have originated as a pun on “blew,” the past tense of “blow.” The dictionary notes, however, that the use of “blue” for squander showed up in writing before “blow” had that slang sense.
The dictionary’s earliest example for “blue” meaning to squander is from The Swell’s Night Guide (1846), by Lord Chief Baron (pseudonym of the actor-writer Renton Nicholson): “The coves … vot we blues a bob or a tanner to see.”
The next citation is from Caste, an 1867 comedy by the English playwright T. W. Robertson: “D’Alroy: ‘So Papa Eccles had the money—’ Sam: ‘And blued it!’ ” (We’ve expanded the citation, based on an early script of the play.)
The OED says the use of “blow” to mean squander or spend lavishly showed up almost three decades after “blue” appeared in this sense.
Oxford’s earliest example is from an 1874 edition of a slang dictionary originally compiled by the English bibliophile and lexicographer John Camden Hotten: “Blew, or blow … to lose or spend money.”
The next citation is from the Sept. 5, 1892, issue of the Daily News (London): “Sometimes you’ll blow a little money … but another week you may make a lot.”
When the verb “blow” showed up in Anglo-Saxon times, it meant either to produce an air current or to burst into bloom.
The OED’s earliest air citation (with “blow” spelled bláwan in Old English), is from the West Saxon Gospels (circa 1000), a translation of the four Gospels from Latin into the West Saxon dialect of Old English: “Þonne ge geseoð suðan blawan” (“When the south wind blows”), from Luke 12:55.
The dictionary’s first blooming citation is from Old English Leechdoms, a collection of Anglo-Saxon medical texts dated around 1000: “Ðonne heo grewð & blewð” (“When they grow and blow”).
If you’d like to read more about the horticultural sense of “blow,” we answered a question in 2017 about the phrase “blown rose” in Shakespeare.
When “blue” appeared as a verb in the early 17th century, it meant to make blue in color. The earliest OED example is from Joshua Sylvester’s 1606 translation from French of the poetry of Guillaume de Saluste Du Bartas:
“Playd the Painter, when hee did so gild / The turning Globes, blew’d Seas, and green’d the field.”