Q From Vivienne Mawson: I can’t find the origin of the phrase bun fight, though I suspect P G Wodehouse might be responsible. Could you help, please?
A P G Wodehouse has been responsible for several things, most notably the best comic writing in English, but we’re fairly sure he didn’t invent this one. Who did is lost in the anonymity of slang history, but it seems to have first appeared in the late nineteenth century, a bit early for Wodehouse.
If it sounds to you like a Victorian children’s nursery at teatime, that surely must be the original allusion behind it. Imagine children having tea, inevitably squabbling over the buns, teacakes, muffins and — this being a British expression — crumpets. Two similar expressions are known from the middle of the nineteenth century: crumpet-scramble and muffin-worry; these haven’t survived.
Interestingly, some of the early uses of bun-fight (these days, also often bunfight) borrowed the idea of afternoon tea in the nursery but left out the fighting: it could refer to the most decorous of engagements, such as those one was invited to by elderly aunts of the Wodehousian persuasion, at which squabbling over food was inconceivable. Then, as now, a bun-fight could more generally be any occasion at which food was served, it often being a sarcastic term describing rather formal ones for which guests had to dress up. In 1994, a newspaper report told of a British MP who turned up improperly dressed (in a lounge suit) at an engagement that was described as the “annual bunfight of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, at which black tie and decorations are de rigueur”.
Another sense of bun-fight, also still with us, borrowed the fight sense but left out the food. Often this refers to a heated altercation, but one that the describing observer feels is of no importance, rather like the nursery squabble that started the expression off.