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.


1.Thoroughly cheated; victimized; maltreated

2. In the Pacific Fleet, screwed, blued, and tattooed means that you've hit a foreign port and have done everything of importance in that port—you have gotten laid, had a new set of dress blues hand made, and added to your already prodigious collection of tattoos. (Navy)
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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

Unlike the imaginative explanations given, the definition goes way back to early machinists. After inspecting a finished manufactured or repaired part, the Toolmaker/machinist would

1 tighten all parts and screws (Screwed)
2 Use Blueing a blue paint lke stain that stuck easaly to metal (blued) and
3 Put his inspectors mark through the blue paint with a sharp scriber (tattooed)
The part has passed inspection, it's been screwed, blued and tattooed and ready for release from the machine shop.

by Fantail July 31, 2009

"Screwed, Blued and Tattooed" comes from various English speaking Navy's, beginning with Europe, and means that you are syphilitic and that you will likely die a slow ugly death.

"Screwed" means the obvious; sexual intercourse.

"Blued" means the administration of the "blue pill"; a tablet containing Mercury, used to treat syphilis which was pandemic for several centuries, and which resulted from the above "Screwed" activity. Sailors are likely the vectors who introduced syphilis to Europe where it became known as "The Pox", was essentially untreatable and the source of much misery and suffering.

"Tattooed" refers to the fact that sailors, at certain times in history, were marked so that they would not be press ganged into service in Navys other than their own. Sailors in those times were essentially "property". The very act of tattooing, done by one sailor to another, generally ensured the further transmission of syphilis, even in the absence of "Screwed". Tattoo's became synonymous with syphilis. Those with tattoo's were to be physically avoided, due to the possibility of cantagion.

And if, when you're a little boy, your grandmother takes you by the hand and drags you away from someone with a tattoo while telling you to "stay clear of that filthy tattooed man", it sticks with you.

You're one of us now you scurvy dog, no woman will have you, there's no life left but the sea. You're Screwed, Blued and Tattooed.

by grassman August 03, 2012

All the definitions I've seen here have a positive connotation, which is completely wrong. The phrase has always had a very definite negative connotation, and means to be supremely screwed, screwed beyond all comprehension. The original phrase was "screwed, blewed and tattooed".

"Screwed" essentially means "cheated" here, much as it does today.

"Blewed" meant "lost or been robbed of". The word's origin is from the German "blauen" so it's actually related to "blue", not "blew", and meant that something had vanished (into the blue). (According to "A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant" By Charles Godfrey Leland, published in 1889.)

"Tattooed" refers here to a beating with very rapid blows, in the same sense as a military tattoo, which is a rapid pattern on a drum.

So, the phrase literally meant "cheated, robbed and beaten".

I invested my life's savings in a fraudulent investment scam, and now I'm screwed, blued and tattooed.

by lhitch November 18, 2010
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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:

Project Gutenberg offers over 53,000 free ebooks: choose among free epub books, free kindle books, download them or read them online.

We carry high quality ebooks: Most Project Gutenberg ebooks were previously published by bona fide publishers. We digitized and diligently proofread them with the help of thousands of volunteers.
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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:

Screw, an unsound or broken-down horse, that requires both whip and spur to get him along. So called from the screw-like manner in which his ribs generally show through the skin.

Screw, a mean or stingy person.

Screw, salary, or wages.

Screw, “to put on the SCREW,” to limit one’s credit, to be more exact and precise; “to put under the SCREW;” to compel, to coerce, to influence by strong pressure.

Screw, a small packet of tobacco. A “twist” of the “weed.”

Screw, a key—skeleton, or otherwise.

Screw, a turnkey.

Screw loose. When friends become cold and distant towards each other, it is said there is a SCREW LOOSE betwixt them; the same phrase is also used when anything goes wrong with a person’s credit or reputation.

Screwed, intoxicated or drunk.
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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:

Blue, said of talk that is smutty or indecent. Probably from the French, “Bibliothèque Bleu.” When the conversation has assumed an entirely opposite character, it is then said to be BROWN or Quakerish.

Blue, a policeman; otherwise Blue Bottle. From the colour of his uniform.

Blue, or BLEW, to pawn or pledge. Actually to get rid of.

Blue, confounded or surprised; “to look BLUE,” to look astonished, annoyed, or disappointed.

Blue Bellies, a term applied by the Confederate soldiers during the civil war in America to the Federals, the name being suggested by the skyblue gaberdines worn by the Northern soldiers. On the other hand, the “filthy BLUE BELLIES,” as the full title ran, dubbed the Confederates “Greybacks,” the epithet cutting both ways, as the Southern soldiers not only wore grey uniforms, but “greyback” is American as well as English for a louse.

Blue Billy, the handkerchief (blue ground with white spots) sometimes worn and used as a colour at prize-fights. Also, the refuse ammoniacal lime from gas factories.

Blue Blanket, a rough overcoat made of coarse pilot cloth.

Blue Bottle, a policeman. This well-known slang term for a London constable is used by Shakspeare. In Part ii. of King Henry IV., act v. scene 4, Doll Tearsheet calls the beadle, who is dragging her in, a “thin man in a censer, a BLUE-BOTTLE rogue.” This may at first seem singular, but the reason is obvious. The beadles of Bridewell whose duty it was to whip the women prisoners were clad in blue.

Blue Butter, mercurial ointment used for the destruction of parasites.

Blued, or BLEWED, tipsy, or drunk. Now given way to SLEWED.

Blue Devils, the apparitions supposed to be seen by habitual drunkards. Form of del. trem.

Blue Moon, an unlimited period. “Once in a blue moon.”

Blue Murders. Probably from desperate or alarming cries. A term used more to describe cries of terror or alarm than for any other purpose. As, “I heard her calling BLUE MURDERS.”—MORBLEU.
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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:

Blew, or BLOW, to inform, or peach, to lose or spend money.

Blewed, a man who has lost or spent all his money is said to have BLEWED it. Also used in cases of robbery from the person, as, “He’s BLEWED his red ’un,” i.e., he’s been eased of his watch.

Blewed, got rid of, disposed of, spent.
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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


Screw (general), salary, wages. The metaphor implies efforts on the part of the employer to diminish the rate, or the efforts of the employee to enforce unwilling payment of, the salary, which has to be screwed out. (Popular), a screw of tobacco done up for sale in a packet. (Thieves), a key, skeleton key.

Screwed (general), intoxicated, a synonym of "tight," the metaphor is the same.

Screw, to (common), to extort, to have carnal connection. (Thieves), to enter a house by means of skeleton keys.
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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.
Screw on, put the (thieves), to extort money by threats. In allusion to the old torture of the finger-screw.
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(The modern connection comes from the trend to connect everything to sex, body parts and functions. Just to be shocking and cynical I guess.)


Blew, or blue (common), to waste to spend, to dissipate. "I blew a bob (I wasted a shilling)," said a costermonger, "when I went to an exhibition of pictures." To spend or lose one;s money in gambling or betting.

Blewed (common), spent, disposed of. Lost or been robbed of. Prmarily, to put, to spend. German blauen, which suggests blue, and not to blow, as original. Ins blaue hinein (away into the blue), vanished, gone; the French passe au bleu has the same signification. Faire passer au bleu, to suppress, dissipate, spend, suander, appropriate. An allusion to a distant, undefined place in the blue above.

Blue, blew, to (common), to pawn or pledge. To spend or lose one’s money at gambling. To waste money generally. Varied to blew, from the phrase "blown in," which refers to money that has been spent, as in the phrase, "I’blewed’ all my tin." For a another variation see BLEWED.
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Getting paid and then blowing your pay is looking good. But here's the corker:

Blue the screw, (popular), to spend one’s salary
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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:
Tattoo, a pony.—Anglo-Indian.
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Some of the false etymologies take this definition and extend it to mean the sailor is getting literally beaten.
1. (Military) (formerly) a signal by drum or bugle ordering the military to return to their quarters
2. (Military) a military display or pageant, usually at night
3. (Music, other) any similar beating on a drum, etc.
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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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