origin of the British phrase ‘to go for a burton’

The British informal phrase to go for a burton (also Burton) means to meet with disaster, to be ruined, destroyed or killed—cf. also the Australian phrase gone to Gowings.

The British phrase originated in RAF slang during the Second World War. The earliest instance that I have found is from Young R.A.F. Flyers Talk Own Colorful ‘Slang-uage’, published in the Wilmington Morning News (Wilmington, Delaware) of 4th March 1941:

Gone for Burton—An air gunner’s phrase for being killed in action.

The second-earliest instance that I have found is from The Sketch (London) of 30th July 1941:

CANADIAN PILOT WRITES HOME.

                                                                                                                              R.A.F., England.
My Dear Hank,
Here I am at last in England. Gee, but it’s been a long grind since I first joined up in this racket! Remember how we speculated as to what my first impressions of England and the English would be, and how you thought the high-falutin’ accent would tickle me? Well, it’s not the accent, Hank—it’s the language. God-dam, but it ties me into knots! I’ve got half an hour, old boy (look at that “old boy”—I’m becoming as bad as the guys over here!), so I’ll be able to describe to you the agonies I went through when I first arrived at this station.
I was sitting by the bar in the mess on my first evening here and was kind of anxious to find another Canadian with whom I could talk, so I ups and speaks to an English air gunner.
“Any other Canucks in the dump, bud?” I asked. He smiles at me—they’re pretty nice-looking, some of these boys—and says: “The last Canadian went for a Burton in the drink, I believe.”
Naturally, I reckon he’s kinda mixed up in words. “When will he be back?” I ask.
“When will who be back?” The English boy looks a bit puzzled, see.
“Why, the Canuck who’s gone for a drink,” I reply. My, but did that guy have a good laugh! Apparently, if you go for a “Burton” you crash or prang your aircraft, and the “drink” is the sea. Get the idea? He meant that the last Canadian on the station crashed into the sea. Sorta cute, eh? The language, I mean.

Gone for a Burton in the drink” - The Sketch - 30 July 1941

Gone for a Burton in the drink.
original illustration for The Sketch (London) – 30th July 1941

 

The reason that this phrase was used was explained by Betty A. Lussier in RAF Puts King’s English Into A Tailspin, published in The Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) of 19th September 1943:

The crude word “death” is never used. Instead the incident is called a “write-off,” and the victim has “bought it” or “gone for a burton.”

Likewise, on 23rd February 1944, The Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana) published English Fliers Flip Slang as Expression of War Life, which explained:

“He’s gone for a Burton” signifies sufficiently casually for the R.A.F. that some one has been killed. The same understatement describes a crash. The R.A.F. says “Newton got him,” that is, he failed to survive Sir Isaac Newton’s law of gravitation.

The earliest transferred use of to go for a burton that I have found is from the Rochdale Observer (Rochdale, Lancashire) of 28th April 1945, in an article about the meetings held in the borough by “Wing Commander Nicol, D.S.M., the prospective National Conservative candidate for Rochdale”:

Amongst views expressed by Wing Commander Nicol were references to financial stability and he declared a conviction that no party had the slightest intention or desire of tampering with people’s savings. On the other hand when any country developed a state of internal chaos, with confidence “gone for a Burton,” the value of money was bound to drop and prices to rise. Corruption and black-marketing started and assumed grave proportions when a people were not united behind a Government.

 

The origin of this phrase is unknown. Since much has already been written about this, I will only mention the explanations that appeared during the Second World War—although none of them has been authenticated by contemporary printed evidence.

The earliest one is from the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) of 16th November 1941:

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

A different explanation appeared in The Sunday Post (Glasgow, Scotland) of 25th July 1943:

Gone For a Burton.—Said of anyone who is missing as a result of a bomber trip or a fighter combat, and of whom no news is received in a month. (Origin has never been traced. One idea is that Burton stands for Beer—a play on bier.—Editor.)

The editor of The Sunday Post was referring to Burton (ale), denoting an ale originally brewed at Burton-on-Trent, in Staffordshire. One J. V. McAree elaborated on this origin in The Winnipeg Tribune (Winnipeg, Manitoba) of 16th September 1944; about “the latest war slang expressions”, he noted particularly “He’s gone for a Burton” and explained:

It means that a man has gone where he will never return. One explanation of its origin is that it first gained currency among English soldiers who were not satisfied with the beer that was provided in their canteens. Those who really wanted a strong glass of beer insisted on having Burton’s, and when it was not available at camp they would walk a considerable distance, if necessary, to the nearest pub. They would return in various stages of exhilaration, some incapacitated, some helpless. So it came to mean that a man who had gone for a Burton was in no immediate shape to perform his duties: he might be, as we say, dead to the world, and eventually the phrase came to mean death.

On 28th August 1943, The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Australia) published an article about “a timely little dictionary of Service slang” compiled by “two enterprising English officers, J. L. Hunt and A. G. Pringle”, and mentioned, among the “five common Service ways of saying a comrade has been killed or gone missing”:

“He’s gone for a burton” (probably Cockney rhyming slang for “gone for certain”)

 

The most convincing explanation is that the phrase originally referred to Burton, the name of a beer—perhaps with wordplay on bier. The story of airmen leaving base in order to drink Burton beer at the nearest pub is most probably a fanciful later rationalisation but, as B. A Phythian explains in A Concise Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Hodder & Stoughton, 1993):

The simplest explanation is that to go for a Burton was, first of all, no more than to go for a drink, and that it was later used as an understatement when someone was killed or failed to return from a flying mission.

This explanation might be supported by the fact that many airmen crashed in the sea, which was known as the drink.

It is often claimed, for example by Robert Allen in Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin Books, 2006), that there existed

pre-war advertisements for beer, which showed a group of people with one of their number clearly missing—because he (it was invariably he) had gone for a Burton, i.e. to get a drink.

However, such advertisements are yet to be found.

3 thoughts on “origin of the British phrase ‘to go for a burton’

  1. I attach below what I was told first hand by my father:
    “Gone for a Burton” didn’t originate with flight crews. It originated in the RAF training camp that was established in Blackpool at the very start of WWII. In the time before the RAF had sufficient training camps, they used boarding houses and hotels in Blackpool. Recruits were marched up and down the promenade, and given lectures in cinemas and theatres. One key element of their training was Morse Code and radio procedure. Having completed most of their basic training, they were tested to see if they had the requisite level of radio/Morse. Any recruit who failed the test would be sent to “general duties”. The included being trained as an air-gunner on a bomber. Even in those early days in 1939–40, the recruits knew that the life expectancy of rear-gunners was about 6 weeks. Those, like my father (Norman Geare) who passed the test would be allocated to the radio branch. My father spent the war in ground stations (UK, Nova Scotia and Burma) listening for “lost” aircraft that needed a heading to get home. The crucial test was conducted in a room borrowed from a billiard hall – named Burtons. Thereby, those who were off to the test were about to find out their RAF service-life expectancy. From those early day recruits, the expression spread throughout the RAF, and beyond. The general meaning was consistent, but those who hadn’t been to RAF Blackpool didn’t know the true origin, so various fake origins were contrived. My father gave me this first hand account when I was young – back in the 1960s. He always scoffed at radio and television attempts to explain the origin. I’m hoping I can trace his full RAF record to verify times and dates for RAF Blackpool.

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  2. I believe Burton’s (the tailors) produced field dressings during WWII. Thus gone for Burton was injured or killed in action.

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