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Well, blow me!

Q From Elisabeth Lauffer: For many years during my childhood, I took violin lessons from an elderly Englishman in Quebec. On occasion, when expressing great astonishment, he would heartily slap his knees and exclaim, “Well, blow me!” Another English acquaintance of my parents, who was of the same generation (born in the 30s, I would surmise), also used the expression, which baffled and amused us collectively time and time again. Do you know the less bawdy origins of this phrase?

A Despite the giggles if an elderly Englishman should without thinking use this dated exclamation in public these days, there’s nothing particularly indelicate in its origins.

It can be traced to Britain near the end of the eighteenth century. There seem to have been at least two strands to its creation, in both cases the verb being in the sense of the wind blowing. One was a sailor’s oath, blow me down!, roughly meaning “may a gale strike me!” This isn’t recorded until much later but there is early evidence for it in the eighteenth-century sailors’ name for a place in Nova Scotia: Cape Blow-me-down (now modified to Cape Blomidon). The other early form was blow me tight! which might suggest inflating a balloon to the point of explosion, but which could be related to an older sense of blow for speaking loudly or angrily or uttering boastful language (the American blowhard contains the same idea); alternatively it might likewise be maritime in origin, referring to sails filled with strong wind.

Blow me down was a mild general curse, which an anonymous London writer in 1848 described as “a burlesque oath”. The person uttering it is referring to some matter that has proved annoying or surprising:

“Wallingford lock!” they answered. “Lor’ love you, sir, that’s been done away with for over a year. There ain’t no Wallingford lock now, sir. You’re close to Cleeve now. Blow me tight if ’ere ain’t a gentleman been looking for Wallingford lock, Bill!”

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K Jerome, 1888.

The expression was soon shortened to the blow me! form that you learned from your music teacher. Lots of variations appeared, such as blow me pink, blow me over!, blow my buttons!, blow me backwards! and one that particularly expresses an overwhelming experience, it blew me away or I was blown away. The most common form that I’m familiar with is either well, I’m blowed! or well, I’ll be blowed!, both gentle expressions of mild astonishment or perplexity.

One uncommonly splendid version of World War Two vintage forcefully conveyed the speaker’s disgust at the prospect of some unpleasant activity that he had no wish to engage in: blow that for a game of soldiers! This is an expurgated form of the original, in which blow replaced a much more forceful verb. One may guess this was first said by some army private fed up with his lot.

Vermine are ancestors of the lemming. Over the millennia more and more vermine were descendants of those vermine who, when faced with a cliff edge, squeaked the rodent equivalent of Blow that for a Game of Soldiers. Vermine now abseil down cliffs, and build small boats to cross lakes.

Reaper Man, by Terry Pratchett, 1991.

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Page created 18 Apr. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 18 April 2009.