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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:

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.]

Page created 29 Oct. 2005

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Last modified: 29 October 2005.