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A recent question posted on English Language & Usage (What does "blazes" mean in "Stay the blazes home!") asks where "blazes" originated as an intensifier. In attempting to answer that question, I found instances of "hot as blazes" going back to 1823. But it occurred to me today that the expression "blue blazes" might be related to the emergence of "hot as blazes"—and this in turn led me to wonder where "blue blazes" came from.

Robert Chapaman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995) suggests that the term alludes to a chemical phenomenon:

blue blazes early 1800s 1 n phr Hell: What in blue blazes are you up to? 2 adv phr Like hell: ... lying blue blazes—Ken Kesey {fr the sulfurous blue blazes of Hell, an extreme environment}

The Wikipedia article on sulfur confirms the flame color:

Sulfur burns with a blue flame with formation of sulfur dioxide, which has a suffocating and irritating odor.

But is that the original rationale for "blue blazes"? Also, when and where did the earliest recorded instances of "blue blazes" and "blue blazes of hell" occur?

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    There's this thing called "alliteration". It's easy to see how "What in blazes are you doing" was amplified to "What in blue blazes are you doing" through alliteration.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 5, 2020 at 21:13
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    @HotLicks: "Blistering blue barnacles!" as Captain Haddock would say. But the argument for alliteration would seem stronger to me if "blue blazes" arose substantially later than simple "blazes" as a euphemism for hell. An initial Google Books search, however, suggests that "blue blazes" is very nearly as old as simple "blazes" in this sense.
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 5, 2020 at 21:18
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    Isn't a blue flame even hotter than red? Apr 5, 2020 at 21:18
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    Blue has nothing to do with color in this expression, and everything to do with alliteration, as @HotLicks pointed out. Blue blazes is just a more emphatic version of the euphemism blazes for hell. Blistering blue blazes is just more of the same. Taboo and euphemism don't work by the same rules as regular language. Apr 5, 2020 at 21:30
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    I'm not quite ready to abandon all ties to the real world yet.""Blue light" was a derisive nickname given to military officers of the 18th and 19th centuries, whose evangelical Christian zeal burned as brightly as its namesake signal, to the chagrin of those less ardent who were subject to the perceived ostentatious piety. Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson carried the nickname "Old Blue Lights" during the American Civil War because of his overt religiosity. " Quote is from the linked article on the blue light pyrotechnic signal.
    – Phil Sweet
    Apr 6, 2020 at 1:11

5 Answers 5

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The earliest usage GDoS suggests is from AmE:

Blue blazes (n.) (also blue blaizes)

a euphemism for hell, usually in phrases; e.g. hot as blue blazes, go blue blazes.

  • 1818 [US] M.L. Weems Drunkard’s Looking Glass (1929) 117: Ye steep down gulphs of liquid fire! Ye blue blazes of damnation!

  • 1821 [Ire] ‘A Real Paddy’ Real Life in Ireland 166: Blood and blue blazes, swore old Mrs. Tarpaulin.

According to the Word Detective:

The choice of “blue” is probably largely due to the alliterative charm of having two initial consonants in the phrase “blue blazes.” But the fact that it’s well-known that the hottest fires burn with a blue flame probably played a role as well. So “blue blazes” probably does, indeed, have some connection to a very intense fire, but not specifically the blue glow of a lime kiln.

To the alliteration point I’d also add that “blue” is used also as a general intensifier:

(orig. US) a general intensifier, e.g. blue murder, scared blue.

  • 1837 [UK] ‘The Blue Wonder’ Bentley’s Misc. May 451: How they manage to do it, I can’t think! [...] It’s a blue wonder to me!

(GDoS)

Blue, on the other hand, appears to be a very common and versatile term especially in colloquial usage:

Few words enter more largely into the composition of slang, and colloquialisms bordering on slang, than does the word BLUE. Expressive alike of the utmost contempt, as of all that men hold dearest and love best, its manifold combinations, in ever varying shades of meaning, greet the philologist at every turn.

(John S. Farmer, "Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present," 1890, p.252)

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  • There's another derivation I've heard referring to lime kilns, where the blazes were literally blue.
    – Joshua
    Apr 6, 2020 at 20:52
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As a supplement to the existing fine answers, I note that the association of 'blue' with hellfire certainly predates Shakespeare (see Richard III, 1597: "The lights burne blew. It is now dead midnight."), and likely dates to classical antiquity. That association probably owes as much to the quality of the light emitted by a blue flame (that is, dark and dim) as to the color of the flame of burning sulphur. As observed in the OED for a phrase first attested from King Richard III,

P1. to burn blue: (of a candle or lamp) to burn with a blue flame, traditionally taken as an evil omen, a portent of death, or a sign that a ghost or the Devil is present; also figurative.

Perhaps from the blue flame produced by burning sulphur (brimstone), associated with the fires of hell.

The OED suggestion perhaps puts the cart before the horse; it seems as likely that blue was associated with hellfire in antiquity (caeruleus ignis) before the color of the flames of burning sulphur.

From that traditional, long-standing association of dark (midnight) blue and the light in hell, the 'blue' in the 'blue blazes' collocation rises as a matter of course. For example, see this use of 'blue fires' in the 1607 tragedy, Bussy d'Ambois, by George Chapman:

Why calledst thou me to this accursed light?
To these light purposes? I am Emperor
Of that inscrutable darkenesse, where are hid
All deepest truths, and secrets neuer seene,
All which I know, and command Legions
Of knowing spirits that can doe more than these.
Any of this my guard that circle mee
In these blew fires, and out of whose dim fumes
Vast murmurs vse to breake, and from their soundes
Articulat voices; can doe ten parts more
Than open such sleight truths, as you require.

Additionally, it would be premature to conclude that 'blue blazes' originated in the USA. The earliest use of the exact phrase that I've found appears in the (paywalled) 8 Dec 1807 issue of The Public Ledger, a London-based publication. The quoted speech, however, was said to have occurred in the countryside near Dublin, Ireland, and the speaker was Irish:

"Blue blazes to your soul, we are not robbing you, we are only distraining you for the King's Silver and Custody Rents!"

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    Great research on early awareness and usage of blue fires and burning blue—thanks!
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 7, 2020 at 3:17
  • Thanks, @SvenYargs. I've now added an early use that casts doubt on the putative USA origin.
    – JEL
    Apr 7, 2020 at 5:04
  • It certainly does. Very interesting.
    – Sven Yargs
    Apr 7, 2020 at 6:00
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The earliest instance of "blue blazes" that I've been able to find occurs in Piomingo [John Robinson], The Savage (1810). In fact, it appears twice in this book, once as "the blue blazes of Tophet" and once as "the blue blazes of hell":

Devil. But that, which displeases me more than anything else, is their habit of attributing to me the origination of a thousand pitiful sneaking little criminalities, with which, I swear by the blue blazes of Tophet, I would not dirty my fingers. My conscience is, certainly, not very troublesome; but I indubitably would not debase my infernal dignity so much as to assist in the perpetration of a thousand little meannesses to which men are addicted.

...

"I have said the word," says I, "madam," says I; "and my word's as good as my bond," says I. "I'll go," says I, "if ten thousand devils were to rise," says I, "and spurt the blue blazes of hell in my face," says I, "Tom! fetch out my horse."

Robinson was evidently from Tennessee, and his usage seems colloquial and (to judge from its repeat appearance) at least personally habitual.

It next appears in Mason Weems, The Drunkard's Looking Glass: Reflecting a Faithful Likeness of the Drunkard, in Sundry Very Interesting Atitudes, (1812/1818), as cited in Hachi's answer:

YE STEEP DOWN GULPHS OF LIQUID FIRE! YE BLUE BLAZES OF DAMNATION!——But hush, thou false zeal, hush! and curse not him whom Christ hath commanded you to pray for.

Here the "blue blazes" seem to refer to the alcohol itself. And indeed both methanol and ethanol burn primarily with a blue flame. As this excerpt indicates, Weems's book is cautionary to the point of didacticism. Wikipedia reports that Weems was a clergyman and author, originally from Maryland; he is best known for his early (and not terribly reliable) biography of George Washington, which may have been the source of the "I cannot tell a lie" cherry tree story.

The third-earliest mention of "blue blazes" that I've been able to find is from 1814 and arises in the context of a dream about being dragged to hell by overpowering devils. From Lorenzo Dow, History of Cosmopolite : or, The Four Volumes of Lorenzo's Journal (1814):

And when I got within sight of hell, to see the blue blazes ascending, and to hear the screeches and groans of devils and damned spirits, what a shock it gave me, I cannot describe : I thought that within a few moments, this must be my unhappy lot.

Wikipedia describes Lorenzo Dow as "an eccentric itinerant American evangelist, said to have preached to more people than any other preacher of his era." The dream he relates occurred when he was about 14 and profoundly affected his religious views. The phrasing seems to be primarily descriptive (the blazes in his dream were blue) rather than primarily alliterative.


Conclusions

All three of the books cited in this answer were quite popular in their day and may have contributed to the popularization of "blue blazes" in the United States. I can't deduce from these three early examples whether the expression originated in brimstone sermons or in the colorful colloquial speech of US post-colonials. Both areas of usage may have helped propagate the expression.

The fact that both sulfur and alcohol burn with a blue or primarily blue flame is not irrelevant to the early instances of "blue blazes" noted here, but I would hesitate to endorse Chapman & Kipfer's assertion that the connection between the expression and sulfur's flame color explains its origin dispositively.

And as various others have noted, alliteration surely played a role in enhancing the phrase's appeal, as well.

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"Blue blazes" is a reference to hell, which according to Christian tradition is filled with brimstone, that is, sulfur. The answer is as simple as this: sulfur literally burns blue.

Sulfur burning blue

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  • But JEL's answer has already suggested this, with supporting evidence (OED). The burning sulphur belief is not restricted to Christianity. Apr 7, 2020 at 16:21
  • @EdwinAshworth I think JEL buries the lede with extraneous material that is not very relevant. Hell --> brimstone --> blue fire. Simple as that.
    – Xerxes
    Apr 7, 2020 at 18:17
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    A good answer on ELU is one that contains linked and attributed supporting references, where reasonably accessible. If an adequate answer can be given that is so simple / obvious that it doesn't need any supporting reference, the question does not belong on ELU and an 'answer' detracts from the standards of the site. // OP even has 'the sulfurous blue blazes of Hell, an extreme environment ... The Wikipedia article on sulfur confirms the flame color: Sulfur burns with a blue flame with formation of sulfur dioxide.' Apr 7, 2020 at 18:47
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Why does “blue blazes” specify [ ] blue..

Couldn't be simpler.

Glance in the OED,

Blue, 3, [ ] (of language) marked by cursing, swearing, and blasphemy.

(If you're not an English speaker, example "blue movies" (pornographic films), "blue language" (much swearing.))

It's utterly common in English that words have more than one meaning. The "blue" here is completely unrelated to the color.

(Other completely unrelated meanings of "blue" are "sad", and a type of 20th century music.)

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    Yes, but the point is: why does blue mean marked by cursing, swearing and blasphemy?
    – user 66974
    Apr 6, 2020 at 19:12
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    hello @Hachi , no, the origin of (one of the meanings of) 'blue' would be a totally separate question.
    – Fattie
    Apr 6, 2020 at 19:20

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