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This week, the town of Maldon in Essex began a scheme of a type common in heritage-minded towns throughout Britain, in which blue plaques are attached to buildings to commemorate significant events in local history.

One of a set of four was placed on the United Reformed Church in Market Hill. This marked the arrival in 1696 of a nonconformist minister named Joseph Billio, who built a chapel to hold 400 and filled it with a congregation that heard his impassioned — and, it’s rumoured, lengthy — sermons. His enthusiasm, the plaque says, introduced a new phrase into the language, like billio.

Unfortunately, the word is first recorded only from the end of the nineteenth century, which makes it much too recent to be linked with Mr Billio, who otherwise is a minor figure even in Maldon history. It’s not often a folk etymology comes with a blue plaque attached — it will be a permanent record that the civic pride of Maldon people exceeds their etymological knowledge, though there’s nothing new in that — see my piece on lynch law.

For reasons unconnected with World Wide Words, I’ve been looking in some detail in recent months into the stories people tell about the history of words. A good tale will resist any number of attempts to refute it — the story is everything and evidence is nothing. For many people, history is all of a piece: everything before their own lifetimes is lumped together into an undifferentiated mass called the past, in which anything is potentially able to be connected to anything else. And, it goes almost without saying, it’s rare that people do even the most elementary checking of a story before putting up a plaque.

A good sign that a folk etymology is present is that stories about an origin come in sets, like delayed buses on city streets. In this case, you can choose a link with Lieutenant Nino Bixio, an Italian soldier at the time of Garibaldi (whose name was said a little like billy-o). It’s said he would enter battle encouraging his men to follow him and “fight like Bixio” (presumably in Italian). You can also go with William Hedley’s early steam engine, Puffing Billy, or with Good King Billy, William III, if you don’t like the others.

Nobody knows where the idiom really comes from, though the first part might be from Billy, a pet form of William, which has been a common generic term for a man in parts of Scotland and the north of England for centuries. The first recorded use is in the phrase “Shure it’ll rain like billy-oh!”, from The Record of 1885, in which the spelling of sure hints at an Irish origin. If it is Irish it might indeed be thought to have something to do with William III, who burned his name into Irish memory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. But two centuries is a long time, even in Irish history.

It’s rather more probable that it’s a euphemistic reformulation of the phrase like the devil, which dates back to Shakespearean times. There are expressions, older than billy-o, in which Billy is a euphemism for the devil: billy-be-damned and giving somebody all billy hell, so it would seem that there’s probably a devilish connection in there somewhere.

But not to a man of God in Maldon.

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Page created 10 May 2003