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A fit of the blues

Once the powers-that-be decided we were having a Recession, it behooved them to say what kind of Recession it is. They have put their heads together and come up with the judgment that it is a ''blue-collar Recession.'' It is falling most heavily, for the moment at least, upon those who spend their days working in factories - or have spent them there before becoming unemployed - rather than on those who work in offices and shops.

What piques my curiosity is less the economic phenomenon than this matter of the blue collar. It seems strange that practical, realistic men, in an age when people wear whatever they please and many wear no collar at all, should still distinguish between types of workers by this picturesque phrase. I suppose that once the office worker actually wore a stiff white collar, and that manual laborers in factories disported themselves in some sort of rough, unstarched denim. That economists should still speak in these terms shows that even they have in them something of the poet. We are all ruled by images that come down to us from the past.

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Consulting a friend who prides himself on his linguistic and lexicographical skills, I was informed that blue as a qualifying adjective is common in many expressions, and that the phrase ''blue collar'' has honorable antecedents. The word ''blue'' by itself possesses an unusual number of meanings. Perhaps because we all exist under the encompassing sky, dwelling on a planet seven-eighths of which is water, we take naturally to shades of distinction in this one color. Whatever the explanation, the word blue signifies traits as various as the following: gloomy, proud, indecent, arrogant, tipsy, puritanical and pedantic.

''Imagine yourself,'' said my friend, ''in a great hall where there passes before you images of men and women from many times and places. You will notice how often a touch of blue makes its appearance.''

''Yes,'' I replied with satisfaction, ''there are a great many people with blue collars.''

''What else?'' he asked impatiently. ''Do you not observe those who are wearing blue bonnets, blue coats, blue gowns, blue jackets, blue shirts, blue stockings -- and those who very definitely have blue noses?''

My eyes were getting accustomed to the light in the hall where this strange scene was being enacted, and I had to admit that I saw these various azure apparitions. But what particular importance could be attached to such styles and costumes? My friend thereupon informed me roughly along these lines: the blue bonnets indicated Scottish highlanders; the blue coats, policemen and other officers of the law; the blue gowns were harlots; the blue jackets, sailors; the blue shirts, an Irish brigade that had been sent to support General Franco in the Spanish Civil War; and the blue stockings were, of course, the female pedants who in the year 1400 in Venice had formed a company marked by this article of clothing.

I was still uncertain about the blue noses, but was told that they were Nova Scotians. As for those who were totally in blue, I figured out for myself that they were soldiers in the American Civil War. One thing puzzled me still. I noticed a whole group who had fringes on their garments and along these fringes were blue ribbands.

''They are the children of Israel,'' said my friend. Sure enough, when I searched out the relevant passage in the Bible (Numbers 15:38), I found that the Israelites were bidden to bedeck themselves in precisely this way. Afterward the Covenanters adopted the same ''ribbands of blue,'' so that some of these, too, were passing through my imagination.

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By now I was getting into the spirit of the game, and I hazarded the remark that I was feeling a bit blue myself, since the day of our conversation was a blue Monday. ''You are feeling tipsy?'' he inquired. Not at all, I replied, just slightly out of sorts. I was then told that the phrase Blue Monday, when used correctly, refers to the Monday before Lent, when people traditionally prepared themselves for the long fast by various sorts of overindulgence. This was getting to be too much for me, and with my white collar in place I went off to other concerns of the day.

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