Why Not a Green Pencil? Perhaps Something in Mauve?

”Blue pencil,” the political verb that describes line-item vetoing, started as a noun.

images-8Before Spellcheck and computers, editors used a blue pencil on manuscripts to instruct printers where to indent, which sections to delete and so forth.

A red pencil was used to correct grammatical errors.

Special pencils were once available that had red lead at one end and blue at the other. There was no eraser because, the old joke went, “editors never made mistakes.”

Courts also sometimes apply the “blue pencil test” in evaluating contract disputes.

It’s “the standard consisting in whether it would be possible to sever the offending words simply by running a blue pencil through them, as opposed to changing, adding or rearranging words,” according to the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage by Bryan Garner.

Wielding of a blue pencil also refers to censorship, as in this Time article from 1944.

Some opine that the description of adult movies as “blue” and the phrase “cursing a blue streak” were born from this expansion of an editing tool to a censor’s weapon of excision.

Others say that laws relating to obscenity were known as “blue laws” and so anything subject to the strictures of such laws would invariably be “blue.”images-7

The use of blue spotlights by strip tease performers is also credited as the origin for “blue movies.” So is the fact Chinese brothels were painted blue.

And, finally, when such movies were shown on home projectors — as most were when the phrase “blue movie” was commonly used – they had a blue tint.

In politics, “use of the blue pencil,” “blue penciling” and “blue penciled” define the excising of particular items within larger legislation, like a budget, by an elected editor of the executive branch.

“The California Constitution grants the governor ‘line item veto’ authority to reduce or eliminate any item of appropriation from any bill including the Budget Bill. In the 1960’s, the governor actually used an editor’s blue pencil for the task,” informs the Glossary of Legislative Terms provided by the state Legislature.

images-6 The  governor “hones his Blue Pencil”  in a June 1985 Los Angeles Times article by Bill Endicott. Twelve years earlier: 

“Governor Sharpens Budget Blue Pencil,” trumpets the headline of a story by Richard Rodda, McClatchy Newspapers Political Editor, in the June 29, 1973 Modesto Bee.

The $9.5 billion spending plan sent by lawmakers to Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1973 was the largest in the nation, eclipsing New York’s $8.8 billion budget, the article says. Of the $9.5 billion, $258 million for salary increases for state employees.

Reportedly, Reagan was not going to be “as severe in reducing the big spending program as he has been in the past,” Rodda writes.


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