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The meaning and origin of the expression: Hurly-burly


What's the meaning of the phrase 'Hurly-burly'?

A hurly-burly is a commotion, tumult, strife, uproar, turmoil.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Hurly-burly'?

Hurly-burly is one of the older reduplicated phrases in English. As it dates from a time at which English spelling wasn't standardised it has, over time, been used with numerous different spellings:

- Whorlle bourlle - Middle English
- Hurley burley, howrley burlei, horl(e)y borl(e)y, hurly burle, hurlei burley, whorle borle, whourliburly - 1500s
- Hurli(e) burli(e), -ly(e), -ley - 1500s-1600s

The phrase hurling-burling also dates from the Middle English period. It seems likely that this and hurly-burly are effectively the same phrase - they certainly mean the same thing - 'strife' or 'commotion'.

Both hurling and hurly derive from the verb hurl, that is, to throw with vigour.

In common with many reduplicated phrases these two expressions begin with a word with a known meaning and add a second rhyming word, which has no especial meaning, for emphasis.

Early examples of these phrases, both in Middle English, are a circa 1533 translation of the story of King Arthur, Arthur of Brytayn:

Than the archbysshop answered hym agayne right sharplye, and so there began muche hurlynge and burlynge in the courte.

And, the first usage that I know of that uses our current hurly-burly spelling is in Erasmus' text The Despisyng of the Worlde, 1532:

My mynde is to withdrawe the from the hurly burly and busynesse of the worlde.

The phrase 'Hurly-burly' - meaning and origin.Hurling is the name of a ball game, previously played in Cornwall and still commonly played in Ireland. If you want a visual demonstration of what a hurly-burly looks like you could do worse than watch a game of hurling.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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