meaning and origin of the phrase ‘(and) the best of British luck’

MEANING, EARLY INSTANCES AND VARIANTS

 

The phrase (and) the best of British luck is an expression of encouragement, often with the ironical implication that good luck will not be forthcoming.

The earliest instance that I have found is from The 5 Stars I’d Pay Good Money Not to See, by Logan Gourlay1, published in the Daily Express (London, England) of Friday 27th September 1957:

'the best of British luck' - Daily Express (London) - 27 September 1957

No. 2 on my list is our Mr. Richard Todd2, who has climbed to stardom despite his lack of vital inches.
That is very much to his credit. The best of British luck to him. I have nothing against him—off screen. I have always found him polite and courteous.

1 Logan Gourlay (1920-1994) was an English journalist.

2 Richard Andrew Palethorpe Todd (1919-2009) was an Irish-born English actor.

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from Moot for the Clerestory, a short story by Vernon Johnson, published in the Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 20th January 1958:

Major Polbathic, a man who wears his sort of moustache and his sort of tie not as a shield but as a manifesto, said, “Absolutely nothing to it.”
“But a Brains Trust!” wailed Entwhistle in such an agitation that the L-R section of the 1952 London Telephone Directory he had been reading for the past hour slipped from his knee. “Me?”
“Piece of cake. Must have balanced team. You’ll provide the sort of—the sort of . . .” The major frowned with every part of his face. “The what-d’you-call-it element. Do I mean freakish? No, not really, I suppose. Long-haired. What?”
“But a Brains Trust! And a Quiz?”
“Village Hall, 7 30 sharp, Friday week. In aid of the Clerestory Restoration Fund.”
[…]
And the best of British luck,” said Polbathic.”

The word luck is sometimes omitted. For example, the following is the concluding paragraph of Artists have some high ideals, published in The Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland, England) of Friday 30th June 1989, in which David Whetstone wrote of a team of four friends “on a daring trip to scale the unclimbed peaks of a remote, uninhabited island 400 miles inside the Arctic Circle”:

May all safely return . . . and the best of British to them!

The phrase is also used in fanciful variants. For example, John Mackintosh, Labour MP for Berwick and East Lothian, used the best of Scottish luck in After a divorce: why total separation is impossible, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Friday 31st May 1968; analysing the political situation in Scotland, John Mackintosh wrote:

If they [= the Scottish National Party] continue their present growth rate, they could capture half of the seventy-one Scottish seats.
Let us suppose that this will happen. The party then hopes that the UK Government will say “The best of Scottish luck,” repeal the Treaty of Union of 1707, and the divorce will be complete.

 

ORIGIN

 

The origin of the phrase is unclear. Two explanations have been put forward.

 

1-: The following theory is from Very Interesting . . . But Stupid! A book of catchphrases from the world of entertainment (Unwin Paperbacks – London, 1980), by the Scouse author and broadcaster Nigel Rees (born 1944):

and the best of luck! Frankie Howerd3 claims to have given this phrase immortality: ‘It came about when I introduced into radio Variety Bandbox4 those appallingly badly sung mock operas, starring the show’s bandleader Billy Ternent (tenor), Madame Vere-Roper (soprano) and Frankie Howerd (bass – “the lowest of the low”). Vera while singing would pause for breath before a high C and as she mustered herself for this musical Everest I would mutter, “And the best of luck!” Later it became: “And the best of British luck!” The phrase is so common now that I frequently surprise people when I tell them it was my catchphrase on Variety Bandbox.’

3 Frankie Howerd (Francis Alick Howard – 1917-92) was an English comedian. He made his first radio appearance on Variety Bandbox in December 1946.

4 Variety Bandbox was a variety show originally designed for the armed forces. It began in December 1942 on the Overseas Programme and attained huge home-listening popularity when it moved to the new General Forces Programme in February 1944. It continued beyond the war on the Light Programme of the BBC until September 1952.

 

2-: An alternative theory appeared in A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, British and American, from the Sixteenth Century to the Present Day (Stein and Day – New York, 1977), by the New-Zealand born lexicographer Eric Honeywood Partridge (1894-1979):

best of British luck to you! – the. A c. p. [= A catch phrase], dating since c. 1943 or 1944, and meaning exactly the opposite, the intonation being ironic – or even sardonic. Originally an army phrase: in 1942-early 1944, things weren’t going any too well for the British, and the phrase was characteristically British in its ironic implications; by 1950, fairly – and by 1955, quite – general. It perhaps owes something to over the top and the best of luck!, q.v.5, and it was, by the late Frank Shaw6 (of Scouse fame), described as that ‘amazing modern phrase in mock-hearty tone’; he also remarked that it is used in ‘false “old boy” tone. “You’ll lose – but – good luck, friend” – sardonic. Emphatic “British” mocking of such phrases in old patriotic plays.’
Sometimes preceded by and and, since c. 1960, often shortened to (and) the best of British (as Albert Petch7 tells me, 31 October 1974).

5 Eric Partridge was referring to this entry in his dictionary:

over the top and the best of luck to you! – the last two words being usually omitted as grimly superfluous. An encouraging convention for the comfort of infantrymen about to leave the comparative shelter of a trench to deliver a frontal attack, the top being the parapet: it arose in July-August 1916, during the great Battle of the Somme – where one needed and occasionally met with good luck. The soldiers’ song ‘Over the Top’, one of the ‘Mademoiselle from Armenteers’ group, begins thus:
Over the top with the best of luck.
          Parley-voo!
Over the top with the best of luck.
          Parley-voo!
Over the top with the best of luck.
Our number’s up if we don’t come back.
     Inky-pinky parley-voo!

6 Eric Partridge wrote the following in Acknowledgments:

Mr Albert B. Petch of Bournemouth, Hampshire; a good and fruitful friend for many, many years

7 Frank Shaw was a Liverpool writer, known for Lern yerself Scouse (How to talk proper in Liverpool) (Scouse Press – Liverpool, 1966).

 

In the revised and updated edition (1992) of A Dictionary of Catch Phrases, Paul Beale added the above-quoted explanation given by Frankie Howerd to that given by Eric Partridge, and conjectured:

When Frankie Howerd was in the Royal Artillery, the phrase may have lingered subconsciously in his mind until his very effective use of it on the radio.

Paul Beale concluded with this personal remark:

I have heard it [= the phrase], mostly c. 1960, parodied yet further as and the breast of duck!

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