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To scream blue murder is to shout loudly and make a huge fuss, sometimes with the implication that the fuss is excessive. But does anyone know why murder should be blue?

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    Funny, I've always heard it as "scream bloody murder." – Robusto Jan 15 '11 at 20:05
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    @Robusto, perhaps then 'blue' is a euphemism for 'bloody'? – Brian Hooper Jan 16 '11 at 13:14
  • Perhaps, although it's also possible each evolved independently. – Robusto Jan 16 '11 at 13:57
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    i thought there were too different idioms: "scream bloody murder" and "get away with blue murder". At least, what i grew up with. But im an aussie millennial so im probably wrong. – jskye Mar 9 '15 at 9:32
  • I belive that the blue is correct for sceaming. As the other common phase that I was told as a child. You can scream until you are blue in the face. Which is similar use of blue in this context. – user128560 Jul 9 '15 at 22:29
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According to Wiktionary, it comes from the French curse word "morbleu", which in turn is a euphemism for "mort de Dieu" (i.e. "death of God"). Most French profanity involves blasphemy.

9

To add to @splicer's answer, the word blue was used in England back in the 17th century to describe someone who looked terrified. This is documented in Francis Grose's 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

to be confounded, terrified, or disappointed

and also recorded in John Ogilvie's Supplement to the Imperial dictionary: English, technological, and scientific.

Which is why it is probably used to scream blue (terrified) murder.

William J. Scott in the Scott's monthly magazine, Volume 4, Issues 1-6 (1867) offers an explanation to why blue is used and not another colour:

brimstone burns with a bluish flame, and hell is represented as being full of burning brimstone.

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    @user7156, thank you. You may be on to something there. – Brian Hooper Apr 9 '11 at 9:38
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Dictionary coverage of 'blue murder'

Longman Dictionary of English Idioms (1979) sees the blue in "screaming blue murder" as an intensifier:

scream/cry blue murder coll[oquial] to make a great deal of noise, esp. in complaint: [examples omitted] {The word murder was formerly used as a cry of alarm or terror. For the use of the word blue, see at a blue FUNK

At the cross-referenced entry, Longman has this:

a blue funk coll[oquial] in a state of great fear; afraid or very worried: [examples omitted] {Funk (fear) was perhaps originally a slang word used by students at Oxford university. Blue is used to emphasize the state of fear. See also scream blue MURDER

E.M. Kirkpatrick & C.M Schwartz, The Wordsworth Dictionary of Idioms (1982) echoes the suggestion (although with less than complete confidence) in splicer's answer of there being a French connection at work:

scream/yell blue murder (inf[ormal]) to make a great deal of noise and protest: [example omitted]. {Possibly connected with the French oath morbleu—'blue death'.}

But Wordsworth, like Longman, acknowledges that blue is functioning in a very similar way in the expression "in a blue funk," without any hint that the expression may be a borrowed mangling of a French phrase:

in a blue funk (sl[ang]) in a state of terror or extreme fear: [example omitted]. {Apparently originally Oxford University slang.}

John Ayto, Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, third edition (2009) has this entry:

scream (or yell) blue murder make an extravagant and noisy protest. informal A North Americn variant of this phrase is scream bloody murder. [Example from 1995 omitted.]

As if to confirm Ayto's observation about North American preferences, Christine Ammer, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has an entry for scream bloody murder but not for scream blue murder:

scream bloody murder Angrily protest as loudly as possible, [examples omitted]. The scream here may be either literal (as in the first [omitted] example) or figurative, which is also true of invoking murder as though one were in danger of being killed. Versions of this term, such as cry murder, date from the 1400s.

Ammer doesn't mention "scream blue murder" even as a variant. But she does have an interesting entry for "in a blue funk":

blue funk, in a 1. In a state of panic or terror. For example, Just because the bride's mother is late, you needn't get in a blue funk. This term originated in the mid-1700s as in a funk, the adjective blue, meaning "affected with fear or anxiety." being added a century later. 2. In a state of dejection, sad. For example, Anne has been in a blue funk since her dog died. This usage employs blue in the sense of "sad"—a meaning that first emerged in the late 1300s.

J.S. Farmer & W.E. Henley, Slang and Its Analogues, volume 1 (1890) reports that, as of that date, blue funk was "popular" and blue murder was "common." Here is the entry for the latter:

BLUE MURDER or BLUE MURDERS, subs. (common).—A term used to describe cries of terror or alarm ; a great noise ; an unusual racket. Cf. French morbleu.

John Hotten, A Dictionary of Modern Slang, Cant, and Vulgar Words (1859), however, covers only blue murder:

BLUE MURDER, a desperate or alarming cry.

Hotten also has this entry for blue:

BLUE, confounded or surprised, "to look BLUE," to be astonished or disappointed.


Early Google Books matches for 'blue murder' and 'blue funk'

In Google Books search results, "blue murder" goes back slightly farther than "blue funk" but neither term pulls a match from before 1834. First, for "blue murder," from Tyrone Power, "A True Though Tough Yarn, About Pattygoney an Other Matters," in New-York Mirror (March 29, 1834):

I found out that the mast I'd been on was floating alongside, held fast by the lee-rigging; so I scrambled over it, till somehow or other I got up into the weather-chains, and waved my arms over head, and shouted blue murder, for I saw the ship was settling down fast; at the same time yowl goes something under my foot, and looking down, there stood shivering our Captain's little poodle, Gracy, as he used to make such a pope of, skrewin' herself close under the lee o' the bulwarks.

From "The Latest from Kentucky," reprinted from the New York Herald, in Hogg's Weekly Instructor (October 17, 1846):

Rip [the narrator's dog] he hitched on to the he-bar, and they had a most mighty tussel for about five minutes, when the bar begun to roar enough like blue murder. I run up then, and knocked his brains out with the but-eend of my rifle. The cubs was so skeered and cold that I killed 'em all in two minutes with my knife.

And from "Editor's Drawer," in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (May 1855):

"They come at us, and Bill Sykes, in slewing round to guard his starn, slipped on a piece of orange-peel, missed stays, and come down plump on his beam-ends. One of the imitation Parleywoos made a garb to captivate Bill, when, in course, I covered my friend, and accommodated the sham Mounseer with a h'ist as didn't agree with him. He was one o' them mutton-fed chaps as can't stand much, for he landed among the fiddlers, and squealed blue murder!"

Second, for "blue funk," from The Phrenologist's Daughter: A Tale (1854):

Reader! Have you ever been in a funk? If so, have you ever been in a blue funk? I am very sorry. 'Tis a low word. But there is no other to express the idea, and under such circumstances what is to be done? "Fright" does not picture the feeling alluded to, no more does "alarm," nor "terror." No! "Funk" is the only word that will do.

Stapleton was in a blue funk. He was walking along a gravel path, which gravel path led him towards a window, which window was a glass-door which could be opened from the outside or the inside, and through this glass-door he could see pretty Lotty Pheeler sitting by the fire, busily employed in copying a rose in worsted-work.

From "Under the Sea," in The Household Words (June 23 1855):

I was in a flutter of fright and joy such as youths who have only been down in the [diving] bell at the Polytechnic can form no idea of. I had the perfectest confidence in the machine, and, above all, in my friend Thomas, but still I was in a greater state of "blue funk" than most boys of fifteen have ever any reason to be.

And from Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown's School Days 1857):

"Tom," said he [East], "blest if you ain't the best fellow ever was—I do like to see you go into a thing. Hang it, I wish I could take things as you do—but I never can get higher than a joke. Everything's a joke. If I was going to be flogged next minute, I should be in a blue funk, but I couldn't help laughing at it for the life of me."


Earlier Hathi Trust matches for 'blue murder' and 'blue funk'

A search of the Hathi Trust database of books and other publications finds several matches for "blue murder" from before 1834. From Christopher Claxton, The Naval Monitor (1828):

"... Well, I falls asleep, but by-and-by I gives Jenny a grip as thof she'd been squi'dged atween the jack in the box and the main-beam, as makes her squall blue murder; vops my calabash again the carline, and bolts * right out of my hammock—What’s in the wind now, says Jenny—If that-ere warnt Jawdy Widders, says I, I'm blow’d—Don’t talk so sillyful, Bill, but come into bed and go to sleep —What! arn’t ye afeerd, Jenny ? says I— Afeerd, you fool, says she, what should I be afeerd of?"

From Michael Hall, "The Cats," in The Melodist, and Mirthful Olio: An Elegant Collection of the Most Popular Songs, Recitations, Glees, Duets, &c. &c., volume 3 (1829):

Straight down the path they both took their way, / Like lovers they walk'd side by side, sirs' / Till in the trap caught, by their tails both so taught, / Molrow and blue murder, they cried, sirs. / Tol de rol, &c.

From Michael Hall, "Nan Is a Rum One" in the same 1829 collection:

Her husband too,—his name was Sam, / Yes, oh yes, it is true, upon my honour, / And he was a noted fighting man; / Molblue! / Once she didn't do right, so he tann'd her hide, / Whilst she all night, “blue murder" cried. / Whack fum, fuddle, faddle, &c.

From "Mungo So Tam Glad" in The Apollo: A Collection of the Most Popular Songs, Recitations, Duets, Glees, Choruses, &c. &c., volume 3 (1830):

Dere [in a ditch] we stick all night, / Bawling out blue murder; / Through dis drunken plight / We could get no furder; / We got sober soon, / Cookee mud was sucking, / 'Cause us bolt de moon, / Cot tam we got foul ducking. / Chick, &c.

From W. Johnson Neale, The Port Admiral: A Tale of the War (1833):

I can't see yet, Bo—'vast a minute.—There's he old boatswain too, standing over to windward, with his pipe.—It's getting dark; I can hardly see.—Hilloa!—Hullabaloo!—Here.—Jump up, shipmates; Mr. Graeme, bear a hand here! Holy man! if they a'n't a going to dance old Grooves on the gantline, like a scrubbed hammock to dry!!""

"Blue murder! No!—where?" exclaimed the many voices, each one trying to spring on the gun, and satisfy himself as to the truth of such an atrocious deed.—"Yes, there he goes, poor old chap, swinging aloft, like a pair o' duck breeks on a windy morning! Oh you * * * *! We'll be revenged for all this, we will!"

All of these instances are from sources published in England.

Meanwhile, the earliest match for "blue funk" in a Hathi Trust search, is from G.J. Whyte, Uncle John: A Novel (1850):

"Of course I swore I could shoot like Colonel Ross, and so, though I was in a blue funk, I resolved to do my best, and put a bold face on it, while the elephant tramped steadily on."

...

"There must have been a hundred people!" he aid with the utmost gravity, "and more than half of them women. I tell you I was in a blue funk!"

This novel, too, was published in London.


Was 'blue murder' originally a euphemism for 'bloody murder'?

it is difficult to sort out instances of "bloody murder" as an expletive from "bloody murder" used in strictly literal sense, of which there are many instances, going back at least as far as Henry Barrow, "A Breife Refutation of M. G. Giffard His Supposed Consimilitude Between the Donatists and Us,..." (1591):

Doth he [Giffard] not see in the whole booke the false church and true lyvely {one} described? The one worshipping the beast, the other following the Lambe; the one persecuted, the other persecuting in most bloody murder of the sainctes.

And instances of the variant spelling "bloody murther" go back even farther. From Richard Lloyd, A Brief Discourse of the Most Renowned Actes and Right Valiant Conquests of Those Puisant Princes, Called the Nine Worthies... (1584):

tHow manie vices do proceed from couetousnesse that wicked crime?

What Kings and kingdoms do we read to be destroid from time to time?

What bloody murther, what distresse, what enuie comes through couetousnesse?

The earliest instance in a Hathi Trust search for "[cry/shout/scream] bloody murder" in the sense of make an uproar is in James Hall, Kentucky: A Tale (1834):

"And what prevented him [from successfully carrying off Virginia after having set fire to the building and rushed into her apartment during the resulting confusion]?"

"They say he forced her through a window and succeeded in reaching the roof of the piazza, where one of his confederates was waiting to assist him in his villainous design, when the screams of Virginia drew the negroes to her relief, and they rescued her."

"Poor Virginia! screaming bloody murder all the while," continued the consumptive gentleman.

"Poor Virginia!" echoed all the ladies.

I also found early examples of "cries 'bloody murder'" (from Franklin Fish, Poems, 1855) and "shout bloody murder" (from The Elocutionist's Journal, 1877).

Also of possible interest is this note from R.A. Proctor, "Americanisms," in Knowledge (March 1, 1886):

I had not been in America ten days, before I had heard many Americans speak of Englishmen as Britishers—generally ad "Blarsted Britishers." Oddly enough, Englishmen lay themselves open to similar contradiction, when they assert that this word "blast" with its derivations "blasted, blastedly, &c.," is much oftener heard in America than in England No one but a blackguard in England ever uses the word ; but in America they are so fully assured that every Englishman is always "blasting" that they use it freely. So with "bloody"; it is a familiar word with English costermongers, but no respectable Englishman ever uses it : nor it is thought nothing wonderful for an American lady to speak of "crying bloody murder," or of "raw-head and bloody bones," at which her English cousin, unless of low grade, cannot help shuddering.

Proctor suggests that "bloody murder" was a shocking expression in England in 1886, but the connection between this observation and the emergence of "blue murder" as an expression more than half a century earlier is not terribly strong. In fact, a significant number of instances of "blue murder" appear from 1828 forward before the first instance of "bloody murder" in the same sense in 1834. Meanwhile, the earliest match for "bloody funk" in a related sense is in Frederick O'Brien, Mystic Isles of the South Seas (1921), more than 70 years after the first appearance of "blue funk":

"...David blows in all 'is bleedin' capital, 'e busts in 'is 'ealth, an' may be, 'e's afraid o' somepin' worse. 'E gets a bloody funk, an' goes to Llewellyn's desk an' gets the gun. Then 'e writes a letter to 'is uncle in Frisco, an' goin' out on the step, 'e blows out 'is brains. I'm on the schooner, so I can't get any blame."


Conclusions

The words "blue murder" and "blue funk" have in common their use of blue as an intensifier conveying (originally, anyway) a sense of greater fear or dread. The terms first appear in Hathi Trust book searches from the period 1828—1850," and in Google Books searches from the period 1834–1857. The earliest slang dictionary mention of "blue murder" appears in Hotten's 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang also defines blue separately as "confounded or surprised."

The fact that the earliest instances of "blue murder" appear in British popular songs and in British works with nautical settings strongly suggests that it originated in England, perhaps as sailors' slang.

In the United States, John Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms, first edition (1848) has this entry for blue:

BLUE. Gloomy, severe; extreme, ultra. In the former sense it is applied especially to the Presbyterians, to denote their severe and mortified appearance. ... In the latter sense it is used particularly in politics. ...

But the notion of blue as an intensifier is compatible with the idea that the word conveys the sense "extreme" or "ultra." Seeing the blue in "blue murder" and in "blue funk" as performing the same role of intensifying the following noun (murder and funk) leaves both phrases explained—something that cannot be said of the etymological theory that "blue murder" is a garbled transposition of the French word morbleu.

As for the suggestion that "blue murder" and "blue funk" may originally have been euphemisms for "bloody murder" and "bloody funk," it is certainly possible, but the time lag between the first published instance of "blue murder" (1828) and "bloody murder" (1834) and, even more so, between "blue funk" (1850) and "bloody funk" (1921) in comparable senses is fairly substantial and raises the possibility that the "blue" versions arose before the "bloody" ones and so did not represent attempts to make crude language acceptable in mixed company.

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Blue Murder is to murder someone of royal, blue, blood.

Murdering a royal is a hard crime to get away with.

To scream blue murder is to denounce someone has murdered a royal or at least accuse them of a heinous crime that they think they had gotten away with.

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    While this is plausible, it really needs some kind of source rather than a flat assertion. – Peter Taylor Dec 3 '11 at 8:50
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    Yes, I'd also like to see some backup material. If I were going by blind speculation, I would have guessed that "blue" replaced "bloody" because bloody was too profane for certain audiences. – mickeyf_supports_Monica Dec 3 '11 at 19:15

protected by tchrist Aug 30 '16 at 11:40

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