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What does till I was blue in the face mean?

What does till I was blue in the face mean?

The phrase “till I was blue in the face” is an idiomatic expression that means to try very hard, with great effort, to accomplish or explain something without success. It evokes the mental image of someone talking, yelling, or arguing about something passionately or relentlessly until their face turns blue from lack of oxygen. The phrase is often used hyperbolically to emphasize the futility of the effort being described. In this article, we’ll explore the origins, meanings, and usage of this colorful idiom.

Meaning and Usage

When someone says they tried to do something “till they were blue in the face,” they mean they exerted tremendous time and effort, often by talking, pleading, arguing, or explaining, but did not succeed in the end. For example:

I explained the rules to the kids till I was blue in the face, but they still didn’t listen.
She tried to convince her boss to give her a raise, but argued till she was blue in the face to no avail.
He begged and pleaded with his girlfriend not to break up with him till he turned blue in the face, but she still left.

In each case, the person describes futilely attempting to communicate, reason, or plead – typically by talking extensively – but failing to achieve their goal or convince the other party. The hyperbolic image emphasizes just how much effort went into the failed attempt.

Some key points about the usage of this phrase:

– It always describes an unsuccessful effort, despite tremendous exertion.

– The effort is usually fruitless because the other party will not be persuaded or swayed, rather than due to lack of trying.

– The most common failed effort involves talking, explaining, reasoning, begging, pleading, or arguing.

– The mental picture is hyperbolic – someone’s face turning fully blue is extreme and not realistic. This exaggeration emphasizes the incredible extent of effort.

– It is often used in informal spoken English, rather than formal written English.

– The basic structure is: “[person] tried/tried to convince/begged/pleaded/explained/argued till they were blue in the face, but [their efforts were futile].”

Origin and History

The original phrase was simply “to talk or argue until you’re blue in the face,” referring to exhaustion rather than an actual change in skin color from lack of oxygen. Early documented uses include:

1885 – “What’s the use of talking till you’re blue in the face?” (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain)
1929 – “You can talk till you’re blue in the face, but you’ll never convince me there’s any good in her.” (The Lost Lady of Old Years by John Buchan)

The reference to both talking and arguing, as well as the use by major 19th and early 20th century authors, suggests the phrase was already commonly used in those times.

By the mid 20th century, the phrase evolved to have more of a hyperbolic meaning, evoking someone talking relentlessly until their face literally turned blue rather than just exhaustion. Some examples of this usage:

1946 – “Joe almost talked himself blue in the face before he finally talked them into it.” (The Zanesville Sunday Times-Signal, Zanesville)
1947 – “I argued till I was blue in the face, but it didn’t do any good.” (The San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco)

This hyperbolic modern sense became the more dominant usage during the 1900s up until today. While the original meaning of exhaustion or weariness from effort is still understood, the colorful image of someone’s face turning blue is what makes the idiom so memorable and impactful.

Possible Origins

The origin of why talking or arguing until exhausted is likened to turning blue in the face is unclear, but there are some theories:

– When people get incredibly angry and frustrated, their faces can redden from increased blood flow. Extended yelling, arguing, or talking passionately may lead to someone’s face reddening and darkening to a blueish tint.

– In cold weather, someone yelling with great effort may breathe heavily, causing bluish lips or skin tone from lower oxygen levels.

– Straining the voice excessively can reduce oxygen flow and cause a bluish discoloration of the face.

– Hyperventilation from talking/yelling too much reduces carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which constricts blood vessels and can lead to blueish skin coloring.

So the phrase may have originally described the actual appearance of exhaustion and strain from arguing passionately. But the exaggerated meaning of someone’s face literally turning blue most likely emerged as a way to emphasize the lengths someone went to, regardless of any real change in skin color.


Some variations of the phrase that emphasize the same meaning include:

– Talked/argued until they were blue in the mouth
– Talking until they were blue around the gills
– Talking their head off until they were blue in the face

But “blue in the face” remains the most common standard version.

In Other Languages

The English idiom translates closely to versions in other languages by substituting words meaning “blue” and “face”:

Spanish – Hablar hasta ponerse azul or Hablar hasta ponerse morado
French – Discutez jusqu’à bleu au visage
Italian – Discutere fino a farsi venire la faccia blu
Portuguese – Discutir até ficar azul / roxo na face

So the hyperbolic futility of exhausting effort crosses cultural boundaries and languages.

Examples in Pop Culture

The idiom remains commonly used in contemporary books, TV shows, movies, and everyday speech:

– “We talked till we were blue in the face trying to explain, but he just refused to listen.” (The Simpsons, 1996)

– “I argued until I was blue in the face, but in the end I had to give in.” (This Is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, 2017)

– “Explaining to you is like talking till I’m blue in the face in a bubble under water.” (Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 2019)

– “I must have told the kids a million times to clean their rooms, but I feel like I’m talking till I’m blue in the face here!”

So the colorful phrase continues to be used, especially in informal dialogue, to express exhausted efforts to communicate without success.


The saying “till I was blue in the face” uses hyperbole to highlight exhausted or futile efforts, often involving passionate talking, arguing, pleading, or explaining in vain. While the original phrase likely referred to exhaustion or strain, the current meaning is more literal – evoking someone talking relentlessly until their face comically turns blue. This creates a vivid image that emphasizes just how much effort went into a failed attempt to communicate, convince, or persuade. So next time you find yourself pointlessly arguing or talking endlessly to no avail, you can say you went on till you were blue in the face! The phrase succinctly expresses the futility of wasted effort.