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Q From Paul Gretton in The Netherlands; similar questions came from Bernie Booth and Pete Shaw in Sheffield: Any thoughts on the origin of bog-standard, as in bog-standard comprehensive?

A First some background for readers not close to British affairs. The comment about “bog-standard comprehensives” was produced at a briefing in February 2001 by the Prime Minister’s press spokesman, Alastair Campbell. A comprehensive school in Britain is one for children from 11 to 16 that caters for both sexes and all ranges of abilities.

Bog-standard is a well-known informal term, which originated in Britain; it means something ordinary or basic, but often in a dismissive or derogatory way. Mr Campbell used it like that and offended those who support the comprehensive system. (It had sufficient impact, though probably only temporarily, that I’ve seen one writer refer to a young man “just out of the local bog standard”, expecting to be understood.)

Bog-standard is a puzzling phrase and nobody knows where it came from. It first appeared in writing in the 1980s, seemingly out of the air. Several subscribers have told me that they remember it from the late 1960s and early 1970s in Rolls Royce and Ford factories and from other engineering environments.

The most obvious suggestion is that it has a link with bog. This has long been a British slang term for a lavatory or toilet. It’s a shortened form of the older bog-house for a latrine, privy, or place of ease, which is seventeenth century and is a variation on an even older term, boggard. (This doesn’t seem to have any connection with the other sense of boggard or boggart for a goblin or sprite.) The slangy bog definitely has a negative edge to it, so it might just be the origin, though how it came about is far from clear.

Despite the obvious association of ideas, the set of words for privy places doesn’t seem to link directly with bog for a marshy area (though the association no doubt helped it along). There are derogatory terms associated with bogs, such as bog-trotter, an eighteenth-century term of abuse for an Irish person. But words like these hardly seem like a source for bog-standard.

There is a common story that bog here is really an acronym from “British or German”, on the grounds that standards in manufacturing were set in Victorian times by British and German engineering. That’s hardly likely, but it’s an interesting example of the tendency among amateur word sleuths to explain any puzzling word as an acronym.

The only other suggestion I’ve seen for the origin of the term is that it’s a corruption or variant form of box-standard, for something that is just the way it comes out of the box, with no customisation or improvements. There’s a big problem with this, in that there’s almost no written evidence for anybody using box-standard in this way.

The exception is a comment by the British computer inventor and all-round genius Sir Clive Sinclair. In February 1983, he said in an interview with the magazine Computerworld: “Luckily, we cannot foresee the day when a computer becomes just a standard box. There will be box-standard machines along the road, but we do not simply have to make those”.

In the same way that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, one sight of the phrase is hardly conclusive evidence, but it does suggest that there just conceivably might have been a jargon phrase in the electronics business at the time, which has since been appropriated and generalised. Or Sir Clive may just have made it up on the spur of the moment as a pun on bog-standard, and the true history of the phrase lies elsewhere.

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Page created 02 Jun 2001