Gone for a Burton
Q From Nick Carrington: What's the origin of the phrase gone for a Burton, please?
A We wish we knew.
In informal British English, something or someone who has gone for a Burton is missing; a thing so described might be permanently broken, missing, 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).
The list of supposed origins is extremely long, but the stories are so inventive and wide-ranging that you may find them intriguing:
- Spanish Burton was the Royal Navy name for a pulley arrangement that was so complex and rarely used that hardly anyone could remember what it was or what to do with it. Someone in authority who asked about a member of a working party might be told that he’d gone for a burton.
- The name of burton was given to a method of stowing wooden barrels across the ship’s hold rather than fore and aft. Though they took up less space this way, it was dangerous because the entire stowage might collapse and kill somebody.
- The term burnt ’un referred to an aircraft going down in flames.
- It refers to the inflatable Brethon life jacket at one time issued by the RAF.
- It was a figurative reference to getting a suit made at the tailors Montague Burton, as one might say a person who had died had been fitted for a wooden overcoat, a coffin (compare the full Monty).
- The RAF was said to have used a number of billiard halls, always over Burton shops, for various purposes, such as medical centres or Morse aptitude tests (one in Blackpool is especially mentioned in the latter context). To go for a Burton was then to have gone for a test of some sort, but to have failed.
- It was rhyming slang: Burton-on-Trent (a famous British brewing town in the Midlands), meaning “went”, as in went West.
- A pilot who crashed in the sea was said to have ended up in the drink; to go for a Burton was to get a drink of beer, in reference to Burton-on-Trent. So the phrase was an allusive reference to crashing in the sea, later extended to all crashes.
- It is said that there was a series of advertisements for beer in the inter-war years, each of which featured a group of people with one obviously missing (a football team with a gap in the line-up, a dinner party with one chair empty). The tagline suggested the missing person had just popped out for a beer — had gone for a Burton. 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.
There’s little we can do to choose one of these over the others. If the advertisements really did run before the War they would be the obvious source, though none have been traced and the most probable candidate, the Burton Brewery Co Ltd, closed in 1935 and was hardly well-known even before then. Whatever the truth, knowing a little about wartime pilots, my bet would be on some association with beer.
[A version of this piece appears in my book Port Out, Starboard Home, which is available in a paperback edition from Penguin Books.]