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Re: Gone for a Burton

Posted by ESC on April 29, 2003

In Reply to: Re: Gone for a Burton posted by ESC on April 29, 2003

: : Perhaps you can confirm my understanding of where this phrase comes from? (It means "gone without trace, disappeared, "scarperred"). I have been told that there was a war-time poster advertisement for Burton Ales. There are men in uniform on parade and the officer asks where one of the soldiers is. The reply is "He's gone for a Burton [Ale]". Does this ring true? Or just a load of rubbish?
: : Cheers!

: That's one theory. If you do an archive search for "Burton," you can access a previous discussion. In part, it says:

: From "The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang" by John Ayto & John Simpson (Oxford University Press, 1992): burton, noun. Also "Burton, to go for a." Brit. of a pilot; to be killed, of a person or thing: to be missing, ruined, destroyed. 1941-. E. Roberts "I can see those flowers going for a burton." . (Origin unknown; perhaps connected with Burton type of beer from Burton-on-Trent.)
: PART II
: "Salty Dog Talk: The Nautical Origins of Everyday Expressions" by Bill Beavis and Richard G. McCloskey (Sheridan House; originally published in London in 1983): "Gone for a burton - Popular amongst airmen of World War II to describe those missing or killed in action. It is one of several expressions which transferred from the navy when its air wing was merged into the RAF in 1918. There are two derivations, each of them plausible. The first refers to a 'Spanish Burton' which was an ingenious but complicated pulley arrangement made up of three blocks. Indeed so complicated was the Spanish Burton, and so rarely used that hardly anyone could remember how to do it. Thus it became the standard answer to anyone in authority enquiring the whereabouts of a missing member of a working part 'he's gone for a burton'. The other explanation comes from the term 'a-burton' an unusual method of stowing wooden casks or barrels sideways across the ship's hold. The advantage of this was that they took up less space and were individually more accessible than when stowed in the fore-and-aft line. The disadvantage, however, and the reason why it was rarely employed, was that the entire stowage could easily collapse. Hence the implication of knocking a man over."

To go for a Burton implies that someone has been killed or completely ruined. World War Two pilots used this expression when colleagues did not return from missions; it seemed less permanent than saying that their fellow pilots had died. It is supposed to refer to Burton Ale, a strong beer brewed at the time, with the implication that their friends had only popped out for a drink. However the phrase is recorded in the 15th century as a euphemism for "to die". The origin here is completely lost.