When something happens suddenly or without you seeing it coming, it can take you by surprise. The unexpected event could make you happy or inflict sorrow. If the unanticipated event is something you had zero clues about or did not have even a tinge of information about, it may seem like a “bolt from the blue”.
The phrase “bolt from the blue” denotes any event you were not ready for. It could be an unexpected pregnancy, a close friend getting married without letting you in on the plan, the sudden demise of a loved one who had no illness history, etc. The idiom is typically used in texts to express despair.
There are various ways to express “shock” or “had no clue about that”. The phrase “bolt from the blue” is a less strained way to send that message across. Keep reading to learn more about the idiom’s roots or the significance of its coinage, how to use it in texts, alternate phrases or terms for the expression, and lots more.
“Bolt from the Blue” – Meaning
The idiom “bolt from the blue” denotes “something completely unexpected” or “a total surprise”. Typically, something “unusual or crucial happening suddenly or unexpectedly” is considered a “bolt from the blue”. The term “bolt” denotes “thunderbolt”, and “blue” represents the “blue sky”. Synonyms for the phrase include “shock”, “revelation”, “jolt”, “bombshell”, etc.
The Phrase’s Genesis
The metaphoric meaning stems from or denotes the entirely unforeseen thunder or lightning in a cloudless sky. In other words, it’s quite strange and unexpected to see lightning striking during clear daylight, particularly when it’s not anywhere close to a thunderstorm.
Meteorologists refer to this phenomenon as “bolt from the blue”. The lightning bolts could travel multiple miles from the thunderstorm clouds and angle downward prior to striking into the earth.
Another theory (which doesn’t seem plausible) indicates the phrase is inspired by the projectile that gets fired from the crossbows employed in ancient warfare. Regular bows shoot arrows. Crossbows, however, shoot missile-like “bolts” and can send them across a reasonably long distance.
Compared to standard bows, crossbows have a much longer range. And because crossbows could shoot from such long distances, the target usually cannot see the person shooting at them. And when the projectile lands or the bolt hits them, it seems like it came from nowhere, and, therefore, the phrase, “bolt from the blue”.
The expression was first used or documented by Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish writer, in 1837, in the three-volume book “The French Revolution”.
Similarities with “Out of the Blue”
The idiom extremely close to “bolt from the blue”, both in meaning and phrasing, is “out of the blue”. When something takes place “suddenly”, it’s called “out of the blue”, which is almost identical to “bolt from the blue”.
Here are a few sentences incorporating the phrase “out of the blue”:
- Her parents announced, out of the blue, they were moving to Canada next month.
- The employee showed up for work out of the blue after a week of uninformed absence from work. He was terminated with immediate effect.
- She wrote a letter to him out of the blue after five years.
- If something occurs out of the blue, it means it happened “unexpectedly”.
Though the two idioms “bolt from the blue” and “out of the blue” mean similar things, they are not interchangeable or cannot be incorporated into texts without making changes to the sentences they feature in. Here are a couple of the sentences above tweaked to incorporate “bolt from the blue”:
- Her parents announced they were moving to Canada next month, and that news hit me like a bolt from the blue.
- After a week of unannounced or uninformed absence from work, the employee showing up for work was like a bolt from the blue.
The remaining two sentences may have to be modified considerably (both in structure and meaning) to use “bolt from the blue”, justifying why the two exist as individual phrases.
Using “Bolt from the Blue” in Texts
Since the meaning of “bolt from the blue” is pretty straightforward, or there’s no room for interpretations, the phrase is relatively easy to incorporate into texts. For example:
- It wasn’t a bolt from the blue for us – at least not to me.
- It was a bolt from the blue and affected us all equally.
- The militancy was rooted in frustration and anger over commodities’ prices going up like a bolt from the blue.
The idiom can also be altered a bit, as in “bolt out of the blue”. Here are a few example sentences:
- The changes were expected and cannot be considered a bolt out of the blue.
- Suddenly, like a bolt out of the blue, a considerable portion of my income will be cut from next month.
- If war happened, like a bolt out of the blue, what would be your response or recourse?
The phrase could use either “as” or “like” right before as its preposition. The meaning or phrasing of the sentence will not be affected regardless. For example:
- The news hit us like a bolt from the blue.
- The news hit us as a bolt from the blue.
Another set of example sentences:
- The chairman’s resignation came as a bolt from the blue.
- The chairman’s resignation came like a bolt from the blue.
Both the variants are grammatically correct, but one could be preferred over the other by some writers.
Is “Bolt from the Blue” Casual?
“Bolt from the blue”, like most idioms or expressions, is “casual” in nature. This means you must use the phrase only when interacting or communicating with friends and family or people with whom you need not necessarily put up a façade. Do not employ the term in academic essays, cover letters or resumes, business plans, and similar formal writing pieces.
If the need to communicate something on the lines of “bolt from the blue” in formal writing scenarios arises, use the phrase’s synonyms instead. Here are sentences that do not employ the term but get the message across:
- Her decision to quit the job shocked us all.
- For the teachers, the management’s decision was jolting.
- When she opened out about her pregnancy, it was like she dropped a bombshell on us.
Kindly note, terms such as “bombshell” may not be correct in specific formal contexts. Confirm with the concerned publication or your manager if you’re considering incorporating the word or similar terms in your texts.
Phrases such as “out of nowhere”, “without notice”, “without any sign”, etc., can be used if “bolt from the blue” is an inappropriate phrase in a given context.
Fun English Idioms
Example Sentences with “Bolt from the Blue”
The following are a few more example sentences using the saying “bolt from the blue”:
- The news that she’s no more was a bolt from the blue.
- My ad earnings for this month were a bolt from the blue. It was, in fact, three times what I usually make.
- The team was an underdog. Their defeating the defending champions was a bolt from the blue for the fans.
- The job offer was a bolt from the blue.
- The sending-off was expected and not a bolt from the blue.
- The French company hired an American as its CEO, a bolt from the blue for the employees.
- The star player’s decision to hang up his boots right before the World Cup was a bolt from the blue for the team management, players, and fans.
- Owing to his poor form of late, his average performance in the championships wasn’t a bolt from the blue.
- Jim annulling his life insurance cover came as a bolt from the blue for Maria, his wife.
- The string of protests erupting in the region within two days was a bolt from the blue for the administration.
- The 2020 coronavirus pandemic was a bolt from the blue for everybody. Even China, the virus’ ground zero, didn’t expect the impact of the virus to be so massive.
- The tsunami that ravaged Sumatra and several coastal regions in its neighborhood was a bolt from the blue for everybody affected.
- We never thought he will ever get married. And when he invited us to his wedding with no hints whatsoever to show, it was like a bolt from the blue.
- Joey’s return to the sitcom was a pleasant bolt from the blue for his fans and the show’s fans.
- He was suddenly arrested during the wee hours of the morning, which came like a bolt from the blue.
- We had no idea she had put in her papers. Her final day in the office was like a bolt from the blue for everybody.
- The increased custom duties were like a bolt from the blue to people like us who frequently buy products from other countries.
- His decision to sell the bike came as a bolt from the blue. It was his first bike ever, and he had taken care of it like his baby for almost a decade.
- The news about their divorce was like a bolt from the blue.
Life never pans out as planned. Irrespective of how meticulously you put each step forward, something untoward is bound to happen at a certain point. This is because there are so many stakes and you are not in control of most of them. Therefore, when a bolt from the blue hits you in life, ensure you’re ready or not bogged down heavily by it.
Shawn Manaher is the founder and CEO of The Content Authority. He’s one part content manager, one part writing ninja organizer, and two parts leader of top content creators. You don’t even want to know what he calls pancakes.