Blue blazes

Ixnay on the azes-blay.

Dear Word Detective:  In doing research on lime kilns for our museum I spoke with an elderly man who told me about the “blue blazes.” In burning the kilns, one knew the process was nearing its end when blue flames were achieved. A kiln was heated for several days and the blue flames had to be maintained for many hours. It was a such a show that people would actually stop when passing to observe the “blue blazes,” as they were known. Our location is on the Niagara Escarpment of Ontario, Canada, an area where many farmers had lime kilns. I wonder if the term “blue blazes” might not have originated from the burning of lime kilns. — Debra R. Mann.

Hmm. It’s a slight departure from my usual policy, but I’m going to just say “no.” It didn’t. Next case. But wait, you get ten points, no, a gazillion points, for asking. Now (assuming you believe me) future generations of tourists won’t waddle into your museum, their grubby little  fingers sticky from whatever ghastly confection will be popular then (probably something mildly radioactive made from recycled cell phones) and encounter a placard misleading them about the origin of “blue blazes.” And then they won’t go home and post a garbled version of that placard to whatever replaces Facebook, confusing the “lime” you mentioned with the stuff in Grandma’s daiquiri drip. Come to think of it, would you like a medal? How about a free cat?

A “lime kiln,” for those not up on such things, is a type of high-intensity oven used to convert limestone into quicklime (calcium oxide), a handy substance which has been used for all sorts of purposes for thousands of years. When quicklime is heated sufficiently, for instance, it produces an intense light used for stage lighting in 19th century theaters, giving us the term “limelight” meaning “public attention and adulation.”

I’m sure the blue glow from a lime kiln operating at its peak must be very intense, but the only connection between the phrase “blue blazes” and those kilns is coincidence. There are actually three separate “blazes” in English. The “blaze” we’re dealing with here, meaning “fire or flames,” comes from the old Germanic word “blason,” meaning “torch.” The second sort of “blaze” comes from Dutch and means “to blow,” and today is heard mostly in reference to “a blaze of trumpets.” The third “blaze,” meaning “to mark a route by stripping patches of bark from trees along the path” (i.e., to “blaze a trail”) comes from an Old Norse word meaning “patch of white on an animal’s forehead.”

For most of its history, “blaze” in the “fire” sense meant either “a torch” (a meaning now considered obsolete) or “a bright flame or fire,” either literally (“A few withered dry sticks, with which they made a blaze,” 1725) or figuratively, in the sense of “glory” or “splendor” (“A most glorious Blaze of Poetical Images,” 1712).

Beginning in the 19th century, however, “blazes” began to be used to mean specifically “the fires of hell” and, by extension, things similarly intense and merciless. Thus were born such phrases as “like blazes” indicating great intensity or force (“The horse … went like blazes,” 1812), as well as the use of “blazes” as a euphemistic synonym for “hell” (“How the blazes you can stand the head-work you do, is a mystery to me,” Dickens, 1837) or “perdition” (“The moral of A party had gone to blazes,” 1924).

“Blue blazes” is simply another metaphorical use of “blazes” as a euphemistic oath (“What the Blue Blazes is he?”, Dickens, Great Expectations, 1861), in this case coupled with “blue” as an elaboration and an intensifier, giving “blazes” a bit more weight. 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.

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