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

Gone for a burton

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Gone for a burton'?

Something which has 'gone for a burton' is no longer functional - a reference to a person who had died or an item that was broken.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Gone for a burton'?

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 that I know of is from the wartime diary of RAF Pilot Officer Colin Dunford Wood. His entry for 22nd May 1941 includes:

Front gun jams so I have to come home, quarter of an hour after the other two, to find the camp being bombed, and 110s just finished and they all think I have "gone for a Burton", as the expression is here.

Very soon afterwards, in November 1941, the American newspaper The Akron Beacon Journal published a list of aviation related jargon terms, including this:

"Go for a Burton - Killed in action. From the name of one of the first R.A.F. pilots killed in this war."

The source of the expression is almost certainly to come from one of three notable Burtons:

1. The Staffordshire town of Burton upon Trent.

2. Sir Montague Burton the tailor.

3. An RAF airman who died in WWII.

However, 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 three 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.

The meaning and origin of the phrase 'Gone for a burton'.2. '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.

3. The RAF airman from WWII. This is a plausible origin and it has the merit that it was thought to be the source of the phrase by an author in 1941, which is when the expression first emerged. However, without a service record to indicate a specific airman this has to remain conjecture

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, as well as the above US citation from 1941, it was defined in June 1943 in a story titled Husky Goes Down for a Burton 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.

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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