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The meaning and origin of the expression: A bolt from the blue

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A bolt from the blue

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'A bolt from the blue'?

A complete surprise, like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky.

What's the origin of the phrase 'A bolt from the blue'?

This has the feel of a Shakespearian or Biblical expression but, as a phrase in English, it isn't as old as it sounds. There are several forms of it: 'out of the blue', 'a bolt out of the blue', etc. The earliest citation is Thomas Carlyle, in The French Revolution, 1837:

"Arrestment, sudden really as a bolt out of the Blue, has hit strange victims."

A bolt from the blueEnglish versions of this expression probably derive as translations of the work of the Roman lyric poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace. A translation from the Latin of Horace's Ode 34 begins:

My prayers were scant, my offerings few,
While witless wisdom fool'd my mind;
But now I trim my sails anew,
And trace the course I left behind.
For lo! the Sire of heaven on high,
By whose fierce bolts the clouds are riven,
To-day through an unclouded sky

Thomas Carlyle was, like many educated men of his era, a classical scholar and would have been well acquainted with Horace's Odes.