What Is the Meaning of 'Blue Blood' (and Other 'Blue' Phrases)?

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
8-minute read
Episode #492
What is the meaning of blue blood


Today's episode is a fun look at the color blue and 10 different meanings of or associations with that word.

1. Blue Democrats

First up is politics. Whenever there's an election in the United States, we hear about red states and blue states. These days, red refers to Republican, or conservative, states, whereas blue connotes Democratic, or more liberal, states. (1) Labeling the states with such partisan colors began with the TV station NBC, the first all-color network, in 1976. (2) The anchor explained how states that voted for the Republican incumbent, Gerald Ford, were going to be blue and those in favor of the Democratic challenger, Jimmy Carter, would be red. (The opposite of how we think of it today.) 

In subsequent elections, other TV stations adopted their own color schemes. No official standard was adopted, however, and so the public became confused. It wasn't until 2000 that red definitively meant Republican and blue Democratic in political discourse and on TV.

2. Blue in the Face

Number two on our list is blue in the face. When someone does something until she is blue in the face, she is feeling frustrated and exasperated. For example, a mother can tell her slovenly son to clean up his room until she is blue in the face; unfortunately, in this case, the room will probably stay messy. The meaning of blue in this expression originates in medicine. (3) When someone is deprived of oxygen, such as when talking breathlessly or angrily, the skin turns bluish. Let's try not to deplete our oxygen levels!

3. Blue Chip

Our third phrase or expression containing the color blue refers to money. The phrase blue chip, as in blue chip stocks, refers to large, well-established companies that are likely to be household names and to pay dividends to stockholders. (4) Examples are cereal maker General Mills and package deliverer United Parcel Service. (5) In 1904, blue chip came to mean of high value (6) and 20 years later came to be associated with valuable companies. Why blue and not some other color? Because at the turn of the 20th century, blue poker chips were very valuable. (6) Nowadays, the highest-value chips, worth $5,000, are brown, with blue chips being worth just $10 apiece. (7) So maybe we should start talking about brown chip stocks instead.

4. Blue Plate Special

Next on our list is the blue plate special. This phrase refers to a daily special that is a complete meal at a reduced price. The origin is uncertain, but it may refer to a plate that was actually blue. When you go to a diner for a blue plate special, your meal might be served on a blue plate with several sunken compartments for “potatoes, meat, and greens.” (8) Dictionary.com tells us the phrase blue plate originates from 1940 to 1945, (9) but it may be 50 or so years older than that. In the 1890s, the Fred Harvey Company developed a chain of restaurants that serviced various railroad routes as well as the dining cars themselves, and the restaurants used “faux-Wedgwood plates with a blue design.” (10)

5. Blue Blood

order of the garterThe next meaning associated with the word blue moves us from inexpensive food to noble blood. English uses several blue-themed expressions that have this elevated connotation, such as blue ribbon and blue blood. When you win a blue ribbon, you've earned the top honor, (11) and the term dates from 1645 or so. (12) Back in the day, the British monarchy gave out the Order of the Garter to well-deserving knights, and this honor was a bright blue ribbon. Blue may also be associated with royalty because blue dyes used to be rare and expensive. (13) 

The expression blue blood, which originates from 1809, (14) refers to a person of noble origin. It seems that members of the Spanish royalty wanted to claim that their blood was pure—in their case, free of Moorish or Jewish ancestry. It is also possible that the association between blue and royalty stems from the simple fact that the blood in the veins of pale individuals appears blue through the skin. (15) Two medical disorders may be also relevant to the association between blue and regality. One is called argyria, a condition that turns the skin a bluish color because of chronic exposure to silver. (16) Silver is expensive and was more likely to be used by rich people than the masses. The second disorder can be traced back thousands of years. It seems that there are blue-skinned mummies from Egypt, (17) and perhaps the lack of genetic diversity among the ancient elite caused a disorder called methemoglobinemia. The skin of individuals with this problem is slate gray-blue. (18) Let's hope these conditions become even more rare, the next meaning of blue.


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.