Q&A: Blue ribbon or blue riband?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we’re handing out ribbons…

Q: Hi AWC, isn’t the Melbourne Cup horse race great?
A: Yes, many think so. “The race that stops a nation.”
Q: Definitely the blue ribbon event on the horsey calendar. Or wait, is it blue riband? What even IS a riband? Spell check doesn’t like it! Argh! Help!
A: Okay okay, calm down. All good questions.
Q: Thanks. So which is it?
A: Well, it’s both.
Q: English to the rescue yet again.
A: Haha. So a “riband” is just an old-fashioned way of saying “ribbon” – it’s listed as an “archaic noun”. Back in the late 1500s, a bunch of knights called “Le Cordon Bleus” used to hang their signature cross off a blue riband. They were particularly impressive knights.
Q: The best knight of your life?
A: A knight to remember.
Q: Seriously though, they were associated with the best – yes?
A: That’s right – that did become associated with them, and we still see it in the cooking world. Le Cordon Bleu means “the blue ribbon” and is the name of the famous 120-year-old French cooking school (chefs originally had a blue cord on their aprons). Other premier sporting events have also used the English version – the Blue Riband Trial Stakes horse race and the Blue Riband award for fastest east-west trans-Atlantic crossings on a commercial liner. That was a big thing at the start of the 20th century.
Q: Wow. Was Titanic trying to break the record and win it?
A: No, apparently not, but it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Q: Too soon.
A: Too soon?
Q: Too soon.
A: Fair enough. But it IS just the beginning – generic “blue riband” events (non-capitalised) are often referred to in sport – a specific event or venue regarded as the premium of its kind. For example, the 100m sprint is typically the big ticket item on the athletics program at the Olympics (curiously, it used to be the 1500metre/mile event). So it’s known as the blue riband event. Likewise with cycling, the blue riband event on the calendar is undoubtedly the Tour de France. Monaco for the Grand Prix and even Best Picture at the Oscars. The list goes on.
Q: Okay, so what about “blue ribbon” events?
A: Things have become a little blurry – and while the proper nouns of those earlier awards will never change, there are many today who call generic events “blue ribbon events” – especially in the US.
Q: No surprises there. America loves to simplify things!
A: However, purists everywhere would still point to “blue riband” being the event itself, while the winner may indeed be awarded a blue ribbon.
Q: Or a gold medal.
A: Yes.
Q: Or a yellow jersey.
A: Correct.
Q: Anything more to say about blue ribbons?
A: Plenty! It has become a symbol of prestige and quality across all products and marketing. So you’ll see it pop up on everything from ice-cream to cuts of meat.
Q: Meat flavoured ice-cream – now there’s a marketing opportunity…
A: The dish that stops a nation…

Do you have a grammar grizzle, punctuation problem or style snafu that you’d like our Q&A to explore? We’d love to hear it! Just email us here

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