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Slang of the Week: blue light special (noun phrase)
something cheap and inferior
Poor Ethel! While her classmates sported their pricey Calvin Klein's, she had to wear jeans she'd gotten two for $10 on a blue light special.
"…Starting with the restaurant's namesake dish, a New York strip that just might be the lead candidate for the best steak in town (certainly for the $28 price tag, the steak world's equivalent of a blue-light special)."
-Rick Nelson, in a restaurant review for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
"Attention Kmart shoppers! Blue light special on aisle three!!"
Back in the late 1970s, branding was a relatively new phenomenon. Designer jeans for the masses were a novel development, and other than Levi's, wearing a label on the outside of your clothes usually meant they were inside-out.
Still, it was considered uncool to get your wardrobe from a discount department store like Robert Hall or Kmart. In fact, it was such a taboo that I remember being terrified someone would see me when my parents compelled me to accompany them on trips to such establishments. (I was unimpressed by my mother's observation that for anyone to see me, they would have to be there themselves.)
Perhaps the worst offense of all was to be in possession of any goods acquired in a blue-light special from Kmart. The store would make a sudden announcement on their loudspeaker of some unbelievable deal available for a short time and marked by a flashing blue police-style light next to the sale item.
Since Kmart stopped offering these specials in the early 90s, I was surprised to see that it is still commonly used. Most current examples are true to the original, derogatory meaning. An recent online article from Entertainment Weekly, for example, said of an American Idol contestant, "In the end, Brooke was given her walking papers after weeks of false starts, trembly voiced performances, bad song choices and worse fashion statements (Blue Light Special on aisle 4...The new Juice Newton K-mart Collection)." However, some writers, like the reviewer in this week's quote, now limit its meaning to "a good bargain."
Its synonym has not fared as well. Back in the 70s, "That shirt is so Robert Hall" was an insult along the lines of "You're trailer trash." Though Robert Hall stores went out of business in 1977, I remember people using it in well into the 80s. However, unlike Kmart, which still exists (minus the blue light specials), that chain has long since faded from the public’s memory.
Take a look in our bookstore for books and DVDs on all kinds of slang! This week’s pick: Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers: A Decade-by-Decade Guide to the Vanishing Vocabulary of the Twentieth Century by Rosemarie Ostler. Check out this fun history of endangered (and extinct) US slang. Looking for a graduation gift? Consider the ultimate primer in bad manners: The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion by A. C. Kemp.