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On Wednesday of this week, the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee asked Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, about a document the Government published in February on the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons (this was the one that borrowed material without attribution from a PhD thesis found on the Internet). Mr Straw described its creation as “a complete Horlicks”.

Commentators — and not only the foreign ones — were deeply puzzled by Mr Straw’s sudden descent into the demotic. What had the trade name of a “nourishing malted food drink”, a pre-bedtime beverage that has been around since the 1870s, to do with descriptions of Iraq? And what would James and William Horlick of Gloucestershire think about the borrowing of their name for a bit of deprecatory slang? These are deep questions.

Part of the problem is that Mr Straw, like so many older people trying to lighten a difficult situation through slang, was using a term that flowered in the nation’s vocabulary in the 1980s and 1990s but which is outmoded. It is said to have been a “society” term (perhaps because an early appearance was in the Official Sloane Ranger Handbook of 1982). Other evidence suggests it might have come out of the army, perhaps said by a sergeant to a platoon commander after a fouled-up exercise, as in “You made a right horlicks of that, sir”. Either way, younger people seem not to know it these days. Its meaning in this context, to put it politely, is “a mess”.

The experts are cautious about its origins. I’ve found a suggestion that it came from a TV advert of the 1980s for Horlicks in which a harassed housewife, having had a dreadful day in which everything goes wrong and is a complete mess, finally relaxes with a cup of the brew that soothes and refreshes. This is stretching the meaning more than a little, so I suspect this is just a folk etymology. Also, the date is wrong, since the expression is older, as we shall see.

Nicholas Sheering of the Oxford English Dictionary found this in the Financial Times of 27 October 1983: “ ‘Making a Horlicks of it,’ has passed into common language to mean making a mess, because impatient Horlicks-makers will often not follow the directions on the label and end up with a very lumpy drink”. I wonder ... it sounds too pat to be entirely plausible.

A better suggestion is that implied in a book published in 1975, World of Wonders by the Canadian author Robertson Davies, which describes a tour of rural Canada by an English theatrical company in the 1930s: “Horlicks was a word she used a lot; it suggested ballocks but avoided a direct indecency ... it seemed delightfully daring, and sexy, and knowing. It was my first encounter with this sort of allurement, and I disliked it”.

Though the 1930s context is certainly anachronistic, that use makes it clear that the word is a euphemistic substitution. Think of the way you might shout “sugar!” instead of another term when you drop something on your foot. In our case, the bollocks (also spelled ballocks, bollux and bollix) are literally the testicles, but for the past half century the term has served as a British emphatic interjection to the effect that something is total nonsense or utter rubbish. We may have got this from Australia, since it’s recorded there in 1919 in a book called Digger Dialect.

One thing is certain: if Mr Straw was using the word to show his command of current slang, he was making a right Horlicks of it.

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Page created 05 Jul 2003