What Does Blue Around the Gills Mean?

Blue Around the Gills Meaning

Definition: Look ill or nauseated.

This expression describes someone who is in need of fresh air because he or she looks sick or unwell and possibly wants to throw up.

It is a temporary state of being, and never a terminal illness.

Origin of Blue Around the Gills

Gills are the slits in a fish’s side that allow the fish to breathe. The word gills as used for the human face is found by 1626.

meaning of blue around the gillsThe exact origin of this phrase is lost, but it most likely came from the German expression green behind the ears, which German immigrants brought to America in the late 1800s. The Sept. 9, 1924, edition of the Charleston Daily Mail wrote,

  • Of one thing all can be sure: that so long as the law stands as it does today Republican presidents will continue to appoint Republican postmasters and Democratic presidents will appoint Democratic postmasters. He is quite green behind the ears who either expects otherwise or that either party is going to change the law and deprive themselves of the opportunity afforded by it.

Ears later became gills (as they are part of the face), and green was changed to blue. The color change could have been because low oxygen can make the skin appear blue.

Examples of Blue Around the Gills

what does it mean to be blue around the gillsIn the modern day, several variations of the phrase are used. In addition to blue around the gills, an ill person can look be said to look green around the gills or pale around the gills.

For example,

  • Are you all right? You look a little blue around the gills.

This use might be a show of concern for someone not looking well.

Here’s another example,

  • I’ve been feeling blue around the gills since this morning.

This time someone is explaining his appearance of queasiness.

More Examples

  • Chilly winter temperatures may leave some fishers blue around the gills, but Jordan Mahu was finding the going far from “crappie” Sunday afternoon on Lake Lisgar. –Tillsonburg News
  • Just the other day, I noticed a salesman friend looking a little blue around the gills, and asked him: “Are you hung over?” –MotorTrend Magazine


To be blue around the gills means to look or appear ill or nauseated. It is a temporary feeling, not a disease or cancer, and it can usually be “cured” by fresh air or rest.