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The meaning and origin of the expression: Gone for a burton

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Gone for a burton

Meaning

No longer functional - a reference to a person who had died or an item that was broken.

Origin

There are numerous suggestions as to the origin of this British phrase, and I suppose that is a another way of saying that no one is entirely sure how it originated. It dates from mid 20th century UK and the first reference to it in print is a definition in The New Statesman, August 1941:

"Go for a Burton, crash."

The source is almost certainly to be the winner of a close-run race between two Burtons; the Staffordshire town of Burton upon Trent, or Sir Montague Burton the tailor - more on them later. The roll call of commonly repeated suggested derivations is quite long, so I'll also list a couple of the long shots:

- A burton (also called a Spanish Burton) was a block and tackle mechanism used on Royal Navy ships. It was reputedly complex and difficult to use and any mariner who wasn't where he was expected to be was said to have 'gone for a burton'. 'Burton' is defined in William Falconer's An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1769:

"Burton, a ... small tackle, formed by two blocks or pulleys ... generally employed to tighten the shrouds of the top-masts."

- 'A-burton' was the term used to describe a form of stowage on a ship. Again, we have a definition - in Arthur Young's Nautical Dictionary, 1846:

"A-burton, Casks are said to be stowed a-burton, when placed athwartships [from side to side across the ship] in the hold."

There really isn't much to commend these explanations apart from the word 'burton'. They are both very early citations for a phrase that wasn't known before the 1940s. Without conclusive proof we can't completely discount them, but it does seem reasonable to put them at the back of the field. That leaves us the two more credible front runners:

Going for a Burton1. To 'go for a burton' refers to the beer brewed in the Midlands town of Burton-upon-Trent, which was and still is famous for its breweries. RAF pilots who crashed, especially those who crashed into the sea, that is, 'in the drink', were said to have 'gone for a burton'. Some commentators have referred to a pre-WWII advert for Burton's Ale, in which a place at table was vacant and the missing person was said to have 'gone for a Burton', that is, gone to the pub for a drink. That would be a very strong candidate if only any record of the adverts were to be found - and surely they would be evident if they ever existed. Until any do come to light it's reasonable to call the said adverts mythical.

Go for a burton2. 'Go for a burton' is a reference to the suits made by Montague Burton, who supplied the majority of the demobilization suits that British servicemen were given on leaving service after WWII. (Note: Monty is also a contender as the source of the Full Monty). Any serviceman who was absent could have been said to have 'gone for a burton'. This does seem the less likely of the two explanations, as it doesn't quite match the meaning of the phrase. 'Gone for a burton' was used to mean dead, not merely absent, and Montague Burton didn't supply shrouds, as far as I know.

What is known for sure is that the term was popularised by the RAF around the time of WWII, evidenced by the fact that all the early citations of it come from that date and context. It migrated to the USA quite quickly and in June 1943 a story titled Husky Goes Down for a Burton appeared in Boys' Life, the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America:

[Gone down for a Burton] In the R.A.F. it's the gentle way of saying that an aviator has been killed in operation.

This phrase is now rather archaic and began fading from general use during the later part of the 20th century. It hasn't quite 'gone for a burton' but it is certainly well on its way.