"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Monday, 31 October 2011

Gone for a burton


In informal British English, something or someone who has gone for a Burton is missing, permanently broken, ruined or destroyed.

The original sense was to meet one’s death, a slang term in the RAF in World War Two for pilots who were killed in action. Its first recorded appearance in print was in the New Statesman on 30 August 1941.

It's exact origin is obscure and many different versions have been put forward. The most favoured is that it was a way of avoiding referring to someone having been killed by suggesting they had only slipped out for a Beer. Burton's being one of the biggest Breweries at that time and Burton-on-Trent being the home of a number of other breweries. In addition, someone who downed their plane in the water was 'in the drink'. (There is also a hint of rhyming slang in there - Burton-on-Trent - went.)

Allegedly there was a series of advertisements for beer in the inter-war years which featured a group of people with one obviously missing, such as a football team of ten players. The tagline suggested the missing person had just popped out for a beer. The slogan was then taken up by RAF pilots for one of their number missing in action as a typical example of wartime sick humour. Whether these adverts ever existed is questionable.

It was quite a common expression in 'my day’ but perhaps it has fallen into disuse becauwe my daughter didn't recognise it when I used it recently. It’s a sad sign when expressions one is still using become ‘archaic’!

1 comment:

  1. Yes. It's also a bit sad when a saying is so corrupted that one can't recall the original. Clue in crossword to which answer was 'pain in the neck' but all I could recall was 'pain in the arse'. Society is getting coarser by the day. Actually that should be 'since Victorian times' because I wouldn't let my children listen to the words of many madrigals from the 1500s!