caricature of Lord Fisher by ‘Spy’ (Leslie Ward) published in Vanity Fair in 1902
Buggins’ turn, or Buggins’s turn, is the principle of assigning an appointment to persons in rotation rather than according to merit.
The earliest recorded use of this expression is in a letter written on 13th January 1901 by the British admiral Lord John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841-1920):
Favouritism was the secret of our efficiency in the old days […] Going by seniority saves so much trouble. ‘Buggins’s turn’ has been our ruin and will be disastrous hereafter!
It is not known whether Lord Fisher invented the expression or was merely the first to write down and make public, in disparaging terms, an existing piece of private Civil Service jocularity.
The surname Buggins was probably chosen because it was thought to be appropriately nondescript. Indeed, it had already been used generically in 1844 in The song of the bread, a poem from Leaves from the scrap book of an awkward man, by Frederick L. Slous:
There’s Buggins as slim as an eel,
And no change in Tom, Harry, or Fred;
They say ’twas beef, mutton, and veal,
But I stick to it still—’twas the bread.
The expression was then used by “a Privy Councillor” in a letter written to Lord Fisher on 8th January 1917:
I have always thought Jellicoe* one of those rare exceptions to the general rule that no great commander is ever a good administrator. I knew you had picked him out long ago to command the Grand Fleet if war came, and it is in my mind that you had told me years ago your opinion of him as a Sea Commander so that it was what I was expecting and hoping for at the time, though I was sorry for Jellicoe superseding Callaghan when the war broke out, but I remembered your old saying, “Some day the Empire will go down because it is Buggins’s turn”!
(* Admiral of the Fleet John Rushworth Jellicoe – 1859-1935)
Lord Fisher is also credited with coining the exclamation OMG.