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“Boys in blue” is a common term used to refer to police officers in general. The term is often considered as an idiom in that it is not meant to be taken literally. Instead, it is really a comparative reference. In a different context, the term “boys in blue” can also be considered a reference to Union soldiers of the United States Civil War.
Likely originating in reference to police officers, "boys in blue" refers to the blue color of the uniforms they typically wear. The phrase refers to “boys” in particular most probably because the job of police officers was originally undertaken by men exclusively. In its present usage, however, the phrase “boys in blue” is viewed as an idiom and not meant to be taken at its literal meaning. It, therefore, is meant to include all police officers, male and female, regardless of the color uniform they wear.
There is some speculation as to how the blue uniform came to be a symbol of the police force. One theory holds that the London Metro Police, as the forerunner to the police force adopted by the United States, wore blue uniforms to clearly distinguish themselves from the military forces, who wore bright red uniforms. The color of the uniform, it is presumed, simply carried over when the U.S. developed its own police force.
Another theory maintains that, after the US Civil War, the police force developed into something of a paramilitary unit. As such, they began wearing uniforms. Due to the fact that the Union Soldiers wore blue uniforms, it is speculated that the police, whose job it was to enforce the law and reduce civil disorder, adopted the blue color for their own uniforms as well.
This latter theory is supported by the fact that the phrase “boys in blue” has also been used to refer specifically to Union soldiers during the Civil War. Union soldiers wore deep blue jackets, thus giving rise to the nickname. In fact, the phrase was used to honor the Union soldiers in both poetry and song, such as the R.W. Burt poem, “The Boys in Blue,” penned around 1909.
Although police uniforms were traditionally blue in color, this is no longer the case. Rather, depending upon the specific location, police officers can be seen in a variety of colors including black, brown, khaki, and gray. Regardless of the uniform color, though, people will likely continue to refer to police officers as the “boys in blue.”