meaning and origin of the British phrase ‘big girl’s blouse’

The informal British phrase big girl’s blouse denotes a man regarded as weak, cowardly or oversensitive.

It seems to have originated in Lancashire, a county in northwestern England.

The earliest recorded instance of the phrase is from the script, by John Stevenson1, of the British television sitcom Nearest and Dearest (2nd series, episode 1 – 1969), set in Colne, Lancashire:

Eli.2: Go round talking like that, you’ll be hearing from our solicitor.
Nellie.2: He is our solicitor, you big girl’s blouse.

1 John Stevenson, born in Manchester, Lancashire, in 1937, has also written scripts for Coronation Street.
2 Eli and Nellie Pledge were interpreted, respectively, by Jimmy Jewel (James Arthur Thomas Jewel Marsh – 1909-95), from Sheffield, Yorkshire, and Hylda Baker (1905-86), from Farnworth, Lancashire.

The following definition of the phrase is from Street Talk: The Language of Coronation Street (Toronto, 1986), compiled by Jeffrey Miller and edited by Graham Nown; this book is “a compendium of idiomatic British English, mostly Lancashire English as, and only as, that language is portrayed in the scripts of Coronation Street”, a television soap opera created in 1960, set in Weatherfield, a fictional town based on Salford, near Manchester:

girl’s blouse: describes an adult male who has a low pain threshold, a ‘sissy’. When trying to remove a splinter someone might say: ‘Hold still you big girl’s blouse. It won’t hurt.’

The phrase was explicitly associated with effeminacy in Bad moon rises again on Blues, by Stephen Bierley, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester) of Monday 15th December 1986—Chelsea Football Club had suffered a 3–0 defeat at Anfield, Liverpool, Lancashire:

The last time Liverpool lost in a home League match against Chelsea was in 1935. The following year scientists isolated the principal female hormone and there are those at Anfield who will tell you that Chelsea have been playing like big girls’ blouses ever since.

In his column Letter from Lakeland3, titled that day Yule be sorry, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester) of Saturday 20th December 1986, David Bean gave an account of “the annual Nativity Play, presented by the staff and pupils of Stoatholme First (and last) School, […] in St Ethelbogger’s Church Hall, Boggerthwaite”:

Balthazar is trying to screw the spout of his frankincense pot into Melchior’s ear, to even things up for being called a big girl’s blouse on the way in from the dressing room. As it happens Melchior was fairly near the truth, but a little knowledge can still be a noisy thing.

3 Lakeland: the Lake District, a region of lakes and mountains in Cumbria, a county in northwestern England

In 1975, the British comedian, musician and author John Dowie (born in Birmingham, Warwickshire, in 1950) formed a touring comedy rock band called Big Girl’s Blouse. On Friday 12th September 1975, The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire) announced that the following Wednesday, at the Birmingham Arts Lab, would be

Birmingham humourist John Dowie with Big Girl’s Blouse, featuring bizarre wit and a pair of local rock instrumentalists.

In A Man About a Dog: Euphemisms and Other Examples of Verbal Squeamishness (HarperCollins – London, 2008), Nigel Rees writes that big girl’s blouse suggests

what an effeminate football or rugby player might wear instead of a proper jersey.

Interestingly, that is precisely the image that Linda McDermott used in What a big girl’s blouse!, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire) of Tuesday 28th August 1990. She was reacting to “Saturday’s amazing display” by the Welsh footballer Neville Southall (born 1958), then goalkeeper of Everton Football Club, Liverpool, “when he sat in the goalmouth for the latter period of half-time”:

You big Jessie Southall! Why don’t you swap that green goalie’s jersey for a big girl’s blouse, it would fit you better after that tantrum on Saturday.

I believe that “what an effeminate football or rugby player might wear instead of a proper jersey” points to the origin of big girl’s blouse: I think that the phrase draws an analogy between a feeble, cowardly man “in a flap”, in a fluster, and an oversized garment hanging loose, fluttering.

 

Neville Southall sitting in the goalmouth
from What a big girl’s blouse!
Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire) – Tuesday 28th August 1990

Neville Southall sitting on the goalmouth - What a big girl’s blouse! - Liverpool Echo - 28 August 1990

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.