Final Word

Is Nkandla affair a case of blue murder?


Could all the shenanigans around the upgrades to our president’s private home at Nkandla be attempts at “blue murder”? This question started off quite innocently.

In fact, initially the thought that “blue murder” might be involved did not even occur to me at all.

It started off when I was “tickled pink” by the situation of an innocent, but very busy toddler sitting on his mother’s lap next to us in church. Halfway through the service he had become such a distraction to the people sitting around them that his mother decided to, despite his loud protestations, take him outside.

The reason for the giggles the situation induced with me is that it reminded me of an old joke based on a similar situation.

In the joke, as a mother was carrying her son towards the door, he was shouting blue murder. As she was about to step outside, he lifted his head over her shoulder and at the top of his voice shouted at the congregation: “Please pray for me!”

Recalling this joke later, my daughter asked me: “Why is it ‘blue murder’?” And that is what led to the quest to find an answer – not only to that, but also to why you would say you are “tickled pink”?

The use of colour as metaphors for from emotions to behavioural traits, goes so far back that it often disappears in the shadows of history. Likewise it is not easy to find definitive explanations of the reasons for or since when a particular colour is used for a specific metaphor.

In the case of ‘tickled pink’, one source claims it was first recorded in 1922, while another cites an example from a 1910 newspaper article. At least in this case on the reason for pink being associated with ‘tickle’ there seems to be some broad consensus: It alludes to one’s face turning pink with laughter when tickled – very much like when blushing.

When it comes to ‘blue’ things become a lot more complicated. For one, it is probably the most versatile colour in the rainbow and explanations for its use are as varied as those colours. Among others it indicates an uneven struggle as in “until you are blue in the face”, constancy as in “true blue”, indecency or obsceneness as in “blue movie”, depression as in “feeling blue”, and many more including “blue murder”.

Some sources claim the expression originated with Shakespeare and his 1590s drama Titus Andronicus. But fact is, it was already a fairly common expression by then, even turning up in songs from the time.

According to an old entry in the Oxford English Dictionary under a section that links it with hurtful things like plagues and pestilence, which may have come from the superstition that candles burning with a blue flame were an omen of impending death.

Another explanation for its more modern use, and a now lesser-known meaning of the expression, is that it came from the French exclamation morblue! It is used when something terrible happened a Frenchman might call out mort Dieu, which means “God’s death”.

It was also used in the sense of “getting away with blue murder”, like in being a member of the “blue blood” or royal class and therefore able to either get away with anything you might have done wrong or not having to do anything at all to earn your keep.

And, in step the association with Nkandla, if you are a member of the ruling class (or high-up enough in the ruling party) you can get away with just about anything.

by Piet Coetzer

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