Going, Going...

...any final bids...and...

… gone for a Burton. Arcadia, which on 30th November 2020 announced it was to go into administration, is the owner of, amongst other UK high street shops, the gentleman's outfitter, Burton. Its sad demise allows for some ironic word fun. There is an idiom out wild in the English language which means to meet with a disaster: ‘Gone for a Burton’.

Burton Shop, High Street - geograph.org.uk - 729719

'Gone for a Burton': idiom - meet with a disaster, ruined, destroyed or killed. Origin uncertain, maybe airman's slang for killed in a crash. References to Burton's men's outfitters or Burton ale are folk etymologies with no evidence to support them.

It piqued in to action with the words ‘Burton ale’ and ‘folk etymologies’. The former is going to require much more of my time (and taste buds) to get my head (and tongue) around. I always thought Burton ale was an actual brewery. It’s not. It’s a type of strong beer/ale that is dark and sweet and named after the brewing town, Burton-on-Trent. Some brewers from that area I have heard of: Bass and Worthington being perhaps the most widely known. As for ‘folk etymologies’ we’ll return to that quaint expression in its own dedicated post.

In London area British English, you will no doubt hear Cockney rhyming slang. A true Cockney was a person born within the sound of the Bow bells. These bells peal from the Sir Christopher Wren designed St Mary-le-Bow church of Cheapside, City of London. Given the prevailing winds over England, the hearing of those bells would primarily be by those in east London. Cockney has lazily become synonymous with east Londoners or people with an Estuary English accent.

Rhyming slang is a word or phrase substituted for the actual word or phrase, rhyming links the two. A speaker may even shorten or simplify the rhyming phrase. Lemon squeezy right?

For example:

A ‘Ruby Murray’ is ‘curry’, as in: 'Let's go to Brick Lane for a Ruby.'

A ‘butcher's hook’ is ‘look’, as in: 'Give us a butchers at yer newspaper.'

There are many more to work your way through in this sublime comedy sketch from Messrs. Barker and Corbett:

I know of three things related to Burton:

  • the place in Staffordshire - Burton-on-Trent;

  • its local beer; and

  • the gentleman’s outfitters.

Back to the idiom. The capital letter in Burton makes it a proper noun. We all know what a proper noun is, right? No, it’s not a pronoun. They, as we all know, are nouns which have lost their amateur status. A proper noun is a one-of-a-kind item (i.e. a person, place, shop, building, product, etc.) and begin with a capital letter irrespective of where they occur within a sentence. As the foregoing list could represent what the man on the Clapham omnibus knows about the word ‘Burton’, let’s try to see if any of these would fit in to the meaning of the idiom either directly or via a sly nod at rhyming slang.

Not wishing to upset the good people of Burton-on-Trent, in the scheme of things, Burton would not be the worst place in the world to go to. There are certainly worse places in England to be sent to. Grammatically, ‘gone for a Burton’ would not make sense either. ‘Gone to Burton’ or ‘Going to Burton’ would work, but that’s not the idiom.

However, the second on that list would work. ‘Gone for a Burton’, literally meaning going for a beer, works grammatically but not from a meaning wise. Similar to the first on the list, going for a beer would not, in many peoples’ mind, be a disaster. Quite the opposite.

Finally, we get to our gentleman’s outfitters. Grammatically, I’ll let it work in the sense that you have chosen a suit from Burton over other choices. Would such a choice be a disaster? Would it ruin, destroy, or even kill you? Most likely not. The idiom is relatively modern: originating from Britain in the 1940s. In the early summer of 1945 the Allies had exited the war in Europe and many from the armed forces were happily being demobbed. Burton was one of the suppliers of demob suits, comprising jacket, trousers, waistcoat, shirt and underwear for the ex-servicemen. That historical snippet still doesn’t waiver my thought and this origination of the idiom is with little merit. In passing, the composition of the demob suit gave rise (speculatively) to the origin of the idiom ‘the full monty’. This idiom has no correlation to our Burton idiom’s meaning. Furthermore, it’s highly unlikely that Burton would be fortunate to have two idioms of separate meanings named after it.

Exhausting the list of what I know about Burton, it’s now lager and lime to start to rhyme. I’d like to check again with our friendly passenger on the Clapham omnibus as my extensive list of what rhymes with Burton stops at two: Curtain and Richard Burton. The latter potentially rhyming slang for the former. Curtains has its own idiom ‘It’s curtains for you’. This has the sense of finality and derives from stage direction when the word ‘curtain’ in a play’s script would show the end of the play and the closing of the stage’s curtains. This idiom is older than ‘gone for a Burton’ and was in use in the 1920s. I like the link and update of one idiom to another through the passing of time, even if the two idioms still exist in our language today. Curtains has a finality about it, much like gone for a Burton. Even more to like.

My liking is short-lived. Richard Burton was born in 1925 and by the end of the Second World War was not yet a household name. However, he served in the RAF from 1944. Signing up initially as a pilot, his poor eyesight lead to disqualification from flight training and reassignment to navigation. I would think that navigation requires a good level of eyesight too. It would be delightful to think that the ‘gone for a Burton’ idiom arose from this event and spawned through usage in the RAF to mean slightly worse than disaster. Delightful but far-fetched methinks as much as I’d like it to be so.

Compounding this fanciful thought is in Cockney rhyming slang, it’s extremely rare to have slang words with more than one meaning. The rhyming is already confusing enough, mix in an extra meaning based upon context of use, and you really are over-baking the cake. However, there is rhyming slang based upon the full place name related to Burton - Burton-on-Trent - as Cockney rhyming slang for rent as in:

“I’m so boracic I can’t go to the rub-a-dub or even pay my Burton.” *

You’ll notice it gets shortened in use, so even though Burton does not rhyme with rent, Cockneys still understand the meaning and even more reason that the full and shortened version of this rhyming slang carries its only meaning.

I hope this shows how difficult it can be to find out the origination of idioms if, over the passing of time, where the idiom arose from is missing. I still like the link to Richard Burton and may well search a little deeper in to that and report back. In the meantime, I’ll leave the last words for Burton’s Brewery Museum. They would have us believe that the idiom…

‘… was used by people working in maltings who died from a lung disease caused by the dust, similar to TB.’

Boracic: I need to come back to this in a separate post. The spelling is new to me and I always thought the slang used another word. I’ll leave you, dear reader, to work out this one's meaning.