A 'blue zillion'

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Tue Dec 7 19:08:50 UTC 2004

On Tue, 7 Dec 2004 08:59:45 -0600, Mullins, Bill
<Bill.Mullins at US.ARMY.MIL> wrote:

>> From: David Bowie [mailto:db.list at PMPKN.NET]
>> Sent: Tuesday, December 07, 2004 8:54 AM
>> I recently had a student (army brat, so she doesn't have a
>> cohesive linguistic background) use the phrase "blue
>> zillion", meaning "lots", in an email to me. The relevant bit
>> (including a typo from the original, ellipsis points also in
>> the original):
>>   "I went to the library to look at for articles online, and i found
>>    a blue zillion...i looked through some of them, but gave up and
>>    went to look at the periodicals in the library."
>> Googling this, i get 61 (after duplicates are eliminated),
>> most of which unambiguously have this meaning, in both
>> unhyphenated and hyphenated forms.
>I've heard a blue zillion, but blue million seems more familiar.

That is indeed the more common expression, so much so that it has appeared
in at least two song titles:

* "A Blue Million Tears" by Carl Butler (1951) (B-side of "River of
Love"), covered by Don Gibson (1965)

* "Her Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" by Captain Beefheart (1972), covered
as "His Eyes Are A Blue Million Miles" by Joan Osborne (1993)

There are many newspaperarchive hits for "blue million", as early as 1920.
 Both of the following appear in syndicated children's stories by Blanche

  (Lincoln, Nebraska) Evening State Journal, June 4, 1920, p. 7
  "But, goodness me, how many do you want," laughed Dotty.
  "Oh, a blue million," replied Mrs. Turret Spider. "The more
  the merrier."

  Washington Post, October 31, 1921, p. 9
  Why it seemed to me when I saw that cat coming as if he had a
  blue-million tails switching through the air.

But there are only two hits for "blue zillion":

  Lancaster (Ohio) Eagle Gazette, January 27, 1960, p. 23
  ["Barney Google and Snuffy Smith" comic strip by Fred Lasswell]
  [Maw:] "Looky at th' new bresh broom I made, Paw -- I bet I could
  sell a blue zillion of 'em."

  (Burlington, North Carolina) Daily Times News, April 30, 1968
  ["Alamance Notebook" by Don Bolden]
  When the family peered into the bowl where the guppies were kept,
  it seemed there were a blue zillion little tiny guppies swimming
  around in the water.

FWIW, Fred Lasswell of "Snuffy Smith" fame hailed from Kennett, Mo.
(Also, Carl Butler was from Knoxville, Tenn. -- and Don Van Vliet, aka
Captain Beefheart, was from exotic Glendale, Calif.)

--Ben Zimmer

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