Blue cent

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Jun 11 07:59:37 UTC 2002

>My dictionaries of slang have nothing to say about "blue cent",
>meaning an insignificant amount. Can anyone help with an origin
>and/or likely age?

I've never heard it myself AFAIK.

Here is an example attributed to Woody Guthrie, not explicitly dated but
supposedly pre-1979, from the Web:

<<But I still am glad I did fall heir to my chorea because it makes me stay
dizzy and drunk all the time without paying my bartender one little blue

"Blue cent" is found on the Internet several times, clearly equivalent to
the [far] more frequent and usual "red cent". Of course "red cent" means
"copper [or bronze] cent" [the standard US one-cent coin], and the "red" is
probably a simple intensifier, adding no information, probably analogous to
"thin" in "thin dime" ... although there were (long ago) "white cents",
one-cent coins made of white metal ('steel' one-cent coins issued during WW
II were not usually called "white" AFAIK).

I think a somewhat arbitrary adjective can serve as an intensifier in these
casual expressions, like "I didn't get a single solitary tiny little
f*cking red cent" or "he can kiss my big fat happy [choose skin colour]
arse". However, in some cases the adjective has some sense, as in "[I
didn't get a] plugged nickel" or "... bent farthing".


(1) "Blue" referring to a copper cent which has been exposed to the
elements, or to acid, and which has turned blue/green: thus less
desirable/attractive than a shiny new cent. This possibility is supported
by the existence of "green cent" occasionally in the same sense (a few
Internet examples). This seems likely in US contexts from a few decades back.

(2) "Blue" = "counterfeit". This sense of "blue" (in "blue bit") is given
by Lighter (RHHDAS). [I suppose the original sense was "blue" = "(oxidized)
copper" as in (1) versus "red" = "gold".] This is pre-1800, though, so I
doubt its relevance.

(3) "Blue" euphemistic for "bloody". Partridge gives this with example "I
haven't a blue bean" = "I'm broke" from ca. 1910, supposedly obsolete by
1975 if I'm reading it right. This strikes me as a possibility, although
perhaps not natural for US uses. [I see a few South African examples of
"blue cent" on the Web.]

(4) Doubly-nonsense intensifier chosen simply as a color in opposition to
red: as in "I don't have a red cent; in fact, I don't even have a blue
cent; in fact, I don't have a cent of any sort!" The existence of "green
cent" occasionally in the same sense could support this possibility as well
as (1).

[NB: In Internet search, one will encounter -- in a certain role-playing
game -- a fantasy figure, apparently a type of orc, called a "cent": this
appears to be an abbreviation of "centurion", and they come in various
colors, blue, red, yellow, etc. I strongly doubt any relevance to the
current question.]

-- Doug Wilson

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