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Dreaded lurgi

Q From Iain McGuffog: Do you know the etymology of the phrase, the dreaded lurgy? I know it’s related to illness and the Cambridge online dictionary says it is ‘a humorous way of speaking of any illness which is not very serious but is easily caught’.

A Your question neatly ties together two of my great interests: the history of words and old BBC radio comedy shows. It’s also timely, since the dreaded lurgi (so written in the script) struck Britain fifty years ago next Tuesday (9 November 1954), in the seventh programme of the fifth series of The Goon Show. This anarchic and surreal radio comedy series starred Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe; it was written by Spike Milligan, between bouts of depression, though on this occasion Eric Sykes (who shared an office with him at the time) did most of the work.

The plot, such as it was, dealt with an outbreak of a previously unknown disease. It was solemnly announced in the House of Commons that “Lurgi is the most dreadful malady known to mankind. In six weeks it could swamp the whole of the British Isles.” Of course, there was no epidemic — it was a fraud perpetrated by those arch-criminals, Count Jim “Thighs” Moriarty and the Honourable Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (trading as Messrs Goosey and Bawkes, a barely-disguised reference to the music publisher Boosey and Hawkes) who put it about that nobody who played a brass-band instrument had ever been known to catch lurgi; this resulted in their disposing profitably of vast amounts of merchandise.

The Goons were then highly popular and the episode resulted in the phrase “the dreaded lurgi” becoming a school playground term for some horrid infection you had supposedly contracted, especially one you had as a result of being dirty or smelly or just not like the other kids. It has survived to the present day, not only among my generation, but as a slang term in schools across Britain among children who have no idea where it comes from. The disease is also known in Australia and New Zealand, but all Americans seem to be inoculated against it at birth, since it’s virtually unknown to them (but then, they have cooties instead).

OK, so much for the background. Where did this word lurgi or lurgy come from? One school of thought holds that Milligan (or Sykes) invented it. It is also said that it might be an aphetic form of allergy; it’s an ingenious idea, though English doesn’t usually lose a stressed initial vowel. Also, lurgi is said with a hard g, to rhyme with Fergie, so that the different value of the g in allergy tells against it. Others say it comes from the Lurgi gasification process, which was developed by the company of that name in Germany in the 1930s to get gas from low-grade coal.

But there’s some evidence they borrowed an existing English dialect term, perhaps one they had heard in the Army during World War Two. The English Dialect Dictionary notes lurgy from northern England as an adjective meaning idle or lazy. This may well be linked with fever-largie, fever-lurden or fever-lurgan, a sarcastic dialect term for a supposed disease of idleness; this was recorded as still current in some places at the time the dictionary was compiled at the end of the nineteenth century (I mean that the term was still being used, but presumably the malady was lingering on as well).

One can imagine Milligan and Sykes being tickled by the idea of an epidemic outbreak of idleness.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 13 Nov. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 13 November 2004.