English has many idioms that use the word "blue." Today, we look at the origins of "blue collar," "bluestocking," and "blue hair."
I’ve talked on previous podcasts about idioms that use the word blue. We talked about blue bloods, the blue moon, and blue laws, just to name a few. Today, I’m going to share a few more.
First up is “blue collar.”
What Does ‘Blue Collar’ Mean?
This term originated in the United States. It’s been used since the 1920s to refer to people who perform manual labor; that is, who work with their hands. (Side note: the word “manual” derives from classical Latin “manus,” meaning “hand.”) The catch-all term “blue collar” includes everyone from farmers and electricians to people who work in construction and manufacturing.
Why “blue”? That refers to the practice of workers wearing blue overalls or coveralls to work. These were usually made of a heavy fabric like denim or canvas. You know how you can wipe your hands on your jeans, and your jeans still don’t look dirty? Coveralls were often made of blue denim for the same reason. It does a good job of hiding grease, grime, and grunge.
“Blue collar” jobs are distinguished from “white-collar” jobs: those that are performed in an office.
The origin of the term “white collar” is pretty straightforward. Just picture a traditional (male) office worker wearing a suit, tie, and stiff white dress shirt. This term appeared slightly before the term “blue collar.” It first appeared in a 1910 Indiana newspaper that described someone from the country following “the lure of the white collar to the city … so he can wear a white collar all the week.” (1) I wonder what that chap would think if he showed up in 2019 and saw some of the casual Friday outfits that “city folk” now wear to work. I’m not sure if he would be pleased, or disappointed.
One other note on collars. There’s a third term—"pink collar”—that refers to professions traditionally associated with women. Think teacher, hairdresser, secretary, or nurse. This term was introduced in a landmark 1977 book called “Women’s Work” that explored the increasing presence of women in the workplace. The author observed that women were generally earning less money and less respect than men who held similar jobs, and that their careers often suffered when they left the workplace to raise children, and returned after several years, older and without current job experience. This may not seem like hot news today, but at the time, these were radical observations. (2,3)
What Are 'Bluestockings'?
Speaking of women and their role in the world, let’s talk about the term “bluestocking”—an insulting name for a scholarly or intellectual woman.
This term can be traced all the way back to the 1400s, when a society of intellectual men and women was formed in Venice. Members were distinguished by the color of their stockings and referred to as “della calza,” meaning “of the stocking.” (4,5)
Similar societies popped up in Paris in the 1500s and London in the mid-1700s.
The London societies were led by a group of wealthy, well-connected women who hosted literary soirees in their homes. One of the most prominent hostesses, Elizabeth Montagu, was described as “brilliant in diamonds, solid in judgement, [and] critical in talk.” Guests at her salons included the philosopher Edmund Burke, novelist Henry Fielding, and Samuel Johnson, author of a groundbreaking early dictionary of the English Language. (6)
As to how Montagu and other hostesses came to be known as “bluestockings,” it wasn’t because of the color of their hose. In the Victorian era, it would have been considered scandalous for a woman to show even a hint of stocking. Women’s dresses reached all the way to the floor.
Although 'bluestocking' is a name for women, it was inspired by the color of a man's stockings.
Instead, it was a man’s stockings that inspired the name. Remember that men of that era wore breeches, pants that stopped just below the knee, with stockings beneath them. Gentlemen and tradesmen generally wore white silk stockings. Laborers, in contrast, wore more gray or blue stockings made of more durable worsted wool. (7)
A frequent guest at Elizabeth Montagu’s salon was an eccentric botanist named Benjamin Stillingfleet. Flouting convention, he wore blue wool hose rather than white silk ones. This was so noteworthy, and Stillingfleet’s presence so ubiquitous, that the salons he attended came to be known as “bluestocking clubs,” and its members, “bluestockings.” (8)
It’s noteworthy that although this term started out as complimentary—evoking women as cultural leaders, at the pinnacle of literary society—it quickly became derogatory. An 1891 guide to etiquette puts bluestockings in the same what-not-to-do category as “coquettes and prudes.” The author notes that a bluestocking “speaks in measured phrase; it is like listening to a book to hear her. She is wrapped up in Tennyson, Browning and Holmes. There is … a great aim at display, with a self-righteousness that is very unpleasing.” (9)
In other words, being a bluestocking no longer means you’re a cultural leader; it means you’re a know-it-all with your head buried in books.
What Does It Mean to Call Someone a 'Blue Hair'?
Let’s finish up with another “blue” term that refers to women in not-such-a-great way: “blue-hair.” That’s a derogatory way of referring to an elderly woman.
This term alludes to white or gray hair that’s been treated with a blue rinse, a type of mild hair dye that was popular from the 1930s through the 1970s. When applied correctly, it gave yellowing hair a silvery tint. When applied with a heavy hand, it gave hair a distinctly bluish cast. (10)
This term was used first in the US in the 1940s. A parallel term popped up in the UK in the 1950s: “the blue-rinse brigade.” This term specifically referred to elderly women whose out-of-date hairstyles were thought to reflect out-of-touch, conservative values. (11)
That segment was written by Samantha Enslen who runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at DragonflyEditorial.com or on Twitter as @DragonflyEdit.
(1) Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. Blue collar, bluestocking, blue hair (subscription required, accessed July 1, 2019).
(2) Howe, Louise Kapp. Pink Collar Workers: Inside the World of Women’s Work. Putnam, 1977.
(3) Astrachan, Anthony. Women’s Work. New York Times, September 18, 1977.
(4) Dent, Susie. Bluestocking, blue-rinse brigade. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.
(5) Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition. Bluestocking (subscription required, accessed July 1, 2019).
(6) Eger, Elizabeth. Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730-1830. Page 69. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
(7) History.org. A Colonial Gentlemen’s Clothing: A Glossary of Terms.
(8) Eger, Elizabeth. Bluestockings Displayed: Portraiture, Performance and Patronage, 1730-1830. Page 3. Cambridge University Press, 2013.
(9) Northrop, Henry Davenport. Golden Manual or The Royal Road to Success. Page 25. Lyceum Publishing Co., 1891.
(10) Portable Press. Ask Uncle John Anything: Blue by You. October 14, 2014.
(11) Derbyshire, David. End of the Blue Rinse. The Telegraph, April 21, 2006.
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