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Where did the expression "feeling blue" come from?

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The phrase is used in many languages. People "turn bluish" when severely sick or injured. Pretty sure that has a lot to do with the phrase in most languages. Which caveman said it first though? –  RyeɃreḁd Feb 20 '14 at 17:57
Not an answer, but I was interested because I recently came across the usage in a biography I'm reading of the 19th century artist John James Audubon ("The Birds of America") who writes in his journal in 1827 that he "had the blues". I was surprised to see this expression - it sounds so modern - so it's interesting to learn that it's as old as it is. <Rob Turner, robertturner19@sympatico.ca> –  user73048 Apr 24 '14 at 15:15

6 Answers 6

If you are sad and describe yourself as "feeling blue," you are using a phrase coined from a custom among many old deepwater sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.

Also, see Origins of Navy Terminology for other expressions.

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This page navy.mil/navydata/traditions/html/navyterm.html#feelblue of the URL you provided is specifically about Feeling Blue in the traditional nautical concept described. –  Ellie Kesselman Sep 14 '11 at 2:16
I don't believe that origin. It has all the hallmarks of etymythology: it's a specific story from an exotic location or romantic field which seeks to explain a phrase which doesn't seem to require much imagination to find perfectly explicable anyway. The OED doesn't mention the origin (it doesn't give an origin for the meaning, so they appear to regard it as a natural extension of meaning). And that site gives no references at all. Some of the stories on it are certainly true, but some I'm pretty sure have been disproved. –  Colin Fine Sep 14 '11 at 14:46
And this shows the dangers of using Wikipedia as a source. The Wikipedia article no longer makes this claim, as I have just removed it, since the only source given was the one I have shown above to be utterly unreliable. –  Colin Fine Sep 24 '11 at 9:03
@Bill: navy.mil is the original "source". I would like to see it taken down, as utterly unreliable, but I have no power to do so. Answers.com explicitly copies the Wikipedia entry. Yahoo.answers.com has identical text to the Wikipedia entry, so one of them copied the other. The fact that the Wikipedia had a source (even though unreliable) strongly suggests that yahoo.answers is a copy from it. So I have removed the bit that I have power to do. I cannot alter mirrors of unreliable data. –  Colin Fine Sep 26 '11 at 17:13
@Bill: please do. I'm always supportive of people trying to find the source of information like this. I wouldn't hold my breath for finding anything definitive though. (The fact that you haven't found anything earlier than the 21st century may be significant). –  Colin Fine Sep 28 '11 at 12:51

The OED gives meaning 3a:

Affected with fear, discomfort, anxiety, etc.; dismayed, perturbed, discomfited; depressed, miserable, low-spirited

with no special comment about the origin of this meaning, and its first citation is from 1586.

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According to the following Wikipedia entry (You can follow the references therein and find out more about this expression)...

This is because blue was related to rain, or storms, and in Greek mythology, the god Zeus would make rain when he was sad (crying), and a storm when he was angry. Kyanos was a name used in Ancient Greek to refer to dark blue tile (in English it means blue-green or cyan). The phrase "feeling blue" is linked also to a custom among many old deepwater sailing ships. If the ship lost the captain or any of the officers during its voyage, she would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along her entire hull when returning to home port.

A small excerpt from Metaphorik.de goes like this...

The proximity of dark blue to black on the colour scale, and its historical grouping with dark colours, may have contributed to blue’s links to depression and to fear – to have the blues, or to feel blue.

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As I said in the comment to Bill's answer, I have just removed this claim from the Wikipedia article, with its unreliable reference. Quoting Wikipedia is quoting the last person who happened to edit the referenced article: it should be used to direct to other sources, not quoted directly. –  Colin Fine Sep 24 '11 at 9:06

The original root is unknown, however etymonline.com says of the related blues:

meaning "depression, low spirits" goes back to 1741, from adjectival blue "low-spirited," late 14c.

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Without recourse to the verifiable original source, I wonder if "feeling blue" wasn't a metaphor for feeling dead; emotionally resembling the pale, bluish pallor of the departed.

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To throw another cat into the bag... The suicide of a friend motivated Piccaso's "blue period". If a source could be found that pre-dates ~1900 this theory is easily disproved.

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See Colin Fine's answer which cites a source from 1586. –  Andrew Leach Jan 16 at 15:42
I wouldn't be surprised if it was motivated the other way around: he painted in blue because of the existing connotation of the color. –  Barmar Jan 16 at 21:54

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