Screwed, Blewed and Tattooed - False Etymologies

Z.W. Wolf

Senior Member.
Screwed, Blewed and Tattooed. What does it mean and where did it come from?

The above, I think, could be the original spelling; which should give us the first clue that the meaning of the expression has changed over the years. Now it's Screwed, Blued and Tattooed.

Number one is the most common meaning just now. It's just an exaggeration on the present meaning of screwed - cheated.

Number two doesn't mean the same thing at all. It's in line with the traditional context of the phrase - a wild shore leave. And it's implicitly an explanation of the origin: an etymology. But it's one of inummerable false etymologies for the expression.

A false etymology is a speculation that becomes "fact."

More false etymologies at Urban Dictionary., blued and tattooed

There are a lot more false etymologies here and there and across the Internet.

The first problem is that people speculate based on knowledge and word meanings that they have, based on their life experience. But word meanings change over the years. The only way to find the original meaning of an old word or phrase is to go back to original sources. What did it mean to the people who first said it?

The second problem is that people speculate with incomplete knowledge. They may find one old meaning and speculate from that. But they don't take into account the most common meanings, or find similar words or phrases and what they meant. In other words they find some speculative meaning but they don't find the most likely meaning. How did people actually talk? What was really on the mind of most people?

The third problem is that people tend to have an agenda.

Let's be thorough and follow the evidence wherever it goes.

Free ebooks by Project Guttenberg is a great source:

Let's look at:

The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical and Andecdotal

John Camden Hotten

1913 - (an updated version of the original published in 1874)

We all know what screwed means right now. But what did the word mean in the 19th century? I'll include every entry from this dictionary:

That last one is interesting. Could screw mean drunk? That would make sense. There are even some modern sources that define the phrase that way.

But how about salary or wages? That would make sense too. Maybe a sailor gets paid or "screwed" when the ship comes into port. But what would blued mean then?

I'll include every entry:

There's drunk again. "Blued, or BLEWED, tipsy, or drunk." Could screwed and blued both mean drunk? In other words, really drunk?

And there's a reference to "Blue Butter, mercurial ointment used for the destruction of parasites." This might go along with some etymologies that have to do with a blue ointment or preparation.

My parents were convinced that the phrase meant: Screwed (as in sexual intercourse) and then having the penis painted with gentian violet (crystal violet). They were born in the '20's and my mother was an RN and my father was in the military during WWII, so they were bringing their knowledge to table. They were thinking of the anti-VD treatments of the time. But wouldn't you get blued before getting screwed?

But there's also "Blue, or BLEW, to pawn or pledge. Actually to get rid of." So, maybe the sailor is getting rid of his pay (his "screw")?

So let's look at a different spelling:

Good support for blew meaning blowing one's money. Which would make sense. Isn't that what sailors do?

Let's go to another (and better) dictionary:

A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant, embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian slang, pidgin English, tinker's jargon, and other irregular phraseology

Albert Barrère, Charles Godfrey Leland, joint author


We're getting support for both wages and drunk here. Very helpful is the explanation of why screw would mean wages. This goes along with a definition of screw from that other dictionary - " 'to put under the SCREW;' to compel, to coerce, to influence by strong pressure."

The authors of this dictionary weren't shy of giving obscene defintions and they included to have carnal connection. The word did have that meaning in the 19th century; and it also meant extort, which would seem to be somewhat similar to the modern meaning of cheat. But the two meanings of the word were completely separate at the time. There was no connection between the sex act and extortion.
(The modern connection comes from the trend to connect everything to sex, body parts and functions. Just to be shocking and cynical I guess.)


Getting paid and then blowing your pay is looking good. But here's the corker:

That this popular rhyming phrase of the 19th century is very similar to the rhyming phrase in question is very good support for the two phrases having a similar meaning.

Looking for definitions of tattooed or tattoo in these dictionaries, or any other source, I can't find any special, slangy meaning that would be apropos.

Both dictionaries have a single reference to the word:
Some of the false etymologies take this definition and extend it to mean the sailor is getting literally beaten.
They then tie this to one legitimate contemporary definition of blewed - been robbed, and another legitimate definition of screwed - extorted, and tie it all together to mean extorted, robbed and beaten.

This is the one alternate etymology that seems to have some chance of being authentic. But it's out of context to the meaning of blowing your pay that is similar to that other common contemporary phrase "blew the screw." And use of the word tattooed to mean beaten seems too much of a stretch. It would be a unique usage of the word that doesn't appear in any dictionary that I can find, nor is it in common parlance.

And why would this have any special connection to sailors on shore leave? Couldn't this happen to anyone? The whole thing seems like an ad hoc explanation for the current meaning of the phrase - getting screwed royally - and not for what seems the traditional context of the phrase - a sailor on a wild shore leave.

Sometimes a tattoo is just a tattoo. (The exact reason a sailor would get tattooed, what the tattoos looked like and what they meant is another question.)

Taking into account all of the meanings of all the words, the most common meanings, the meaning of a similar common phrase, the way the words hang together in context, and the traditional connection to a sailor on a wild shore leave, the original meaning of screwed, blewed and tattooed was most likely: Get paid, blow your pay and get tattooed. Tattooed meaning just what it does now.

It's a complete shore leave.
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