The English language is the most widely taught and understood in the world, yet the origins of many of its words and phrases remain a mystery. Now word sleuths are hoping to employ the public's experience to help explain some common words.
James Gordon Bennett (right) and his playboy son, Gordon Bennett
It's not an epitaph one would wish for - to become the physical embodiment of a swear word. But how else do you explain Gordon Bennett, the expression of surprise that, in lewder company, would take four-letter form?
But who was the original Gordon Bennett, and how did he come to be immortalised in the English language?
No one knows for sure, which is why the country's leading language experts are consulting the public on the origins of this and dozens of other vexing words and phrases,
In tracking the origins of Gordon Bennett, these - to employ the parlance of a notable linguistic conjurer of our times - are the known unknowns:
• There were two famous Gordon Bennetts who might have been the source - a father and son
• James Gordon Bennett Snr was a Scottish-born journalist, famous in the US for founding the New York Herald and conducting the first ever newspaper interview
• His son, of the same name, was more interested in fast cars, planes and women. He used his inheritance to sponsor the Bennett Trophy in motor racing from 1900 to 1905, and in 1906 established a hot-air balloon race that is still held today. In fact, Gordon Bennett Jnr was probably the first international playboy
Nora Batty: The original Flaming Nora... unlikely
But there's one big hitch - there is no evidence to link the phrase "Gordon Bennett" with either man. Indeed, the first time the expression appears in print in the Oxford English Dictionary is in 1967, a long time after their heyday.
Gordon Bennett, along with his sisters Flaming Nora and Bleeding Adam, are just three of a large number of eponyms - a person whose name becomes a synonym for something - in the English language.
Many are mysteries, and as with all etymological detective work, there are a legion of theories - from the plausible to the downright ludicrous.
Sadly, perhaps, the Gordon Bennett who became enshrined in the English language, might never have existed, says John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. "The expression is probably just a euphemistic extension of 'God!' or 'Gawd!', turned into a proper name to weaken the swear-word."
Eponyms often present a particularly slippery challenge for word sleuths, says Mr Simpson, who cites "Taking the Mickey" as another good example.
"There doesn't have to be a specific person behind a phrase. 'Mickey' here is probably being used to represent a type of person, rather than as a specific name."
However the OED, along with the Penguin English Dictionary and Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable, speculate it may be a shortened form of the rhyming slang "Mickey Bliss", which in turn alludes to the deflating of a person, as a bladder deflates when emptying.
The OED bills itself as the "definitive record of the English language", and aims to find the earliest verifiable usage of every single word within it. That's currently 600,000 words and counting, so it's not surprising that it has a longstanding tradition of turning to the public for help.
In the lead up to the new series of BBC Two's Balderdash and Piffle, lexicographers at the OED are staging their second so-called Wordhunt - asking for the public's help in tracing the history of 40 well-known words and phrases. The results will feature in the BBC show when it returns in the spring.
To help, amateur word sleuths must find an earlier example of one of the 40 words and phrases, although this doesn't have to be in a book.
"Wordhunters made some remarkable discoveries in the last series," says Mr Simpson. "They found evidence tucked away in football fanzines, LPs, school newspapers: just the sort of sources we can't easily get our hands on."
Other sources worth checking would be unpublished papers, letters and post-marked postcards. Words like "identity theft", also on the Wordhunt list, might well first have appeared online.
It doesn't matter what the source is - as long as it can be dated. One of the best examples of unorthodox evidence came from last year's Wordhunt, when one amateur Wordhunter thought she remembered commenting "phwoar" of her gym teacher's legs when she was at school.
Sure enough, when Michele Grange hunted through her diaries she found it written in her schoolgirl hand. The diary entry is now immortalised in the OED.
As for Gordon Bennett, it remains to be seen whether the saying owes itself to a real person.
As for Gordon Bennett Jnr, son of the newspaper magnate, he certainly holds one honour - holder of the Guinness Book of Records entry for "Greatest Engagement Faux Pas". One very drunken evening he turned up late to a posh party held by his future in-laws, and ended up urinating into a fireplace in full view of everyone. The engagement, unsurprisingly, was broken off, and Mr Bennett left New York to pursue his playboy habits in Paris.
To see the full Wordhunt list, go to the Balderdash and Piffle website (see internet links, above, right) or email your evidence to firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise add your comments to this story using the form below.
Ref the word "Phwore", I remember the comic Terry Scott in his "schoolboy role" saying it, but I cannot remember the name of the T.V.show. However, his use of the word certainly predates the dates shown in the new O.E.D. Did HE invent it?
Patrick Walsh, Helsinki, Finland
I always thought the phrase "Gordon Bennett!" came from Lieutenant-General Henry Gordon Bennett who abandoned his command and fled to safety during the Japanese invasion of Singapore leaving his unfortunate troops behind to be captured.
Robert Wright, York
I was led to believe that Gordon Bennett was in the army in the second world war and had something to do with the Allied failure in South East Asia, I think he made some form of mistake and his troops were captured or he deserted his troops and tried to escape to Australia. I have probably been completley mis-informed though.
Chris Groom, Hemel Hempstead
I thought it was Steve Bell's penguin who made Gordon Bennett famous in the 1980s. It was the name of the captain on the ship that Kipling defected from.
Mark Tebbit, Wareham, Dorset, England
Could Gordon Bennet not just be derived from " God and Damnit"?
James , London
I always thought "Taking the Mickey" came from when the Irish emigrated to England and were the butt of jokes. I.E Taking the Michael (a common Irish name).
I remember reading as a small child that Gordon Bennett was the leader of a foxhunt around the turn of the last century, and would announce his name as a sort of clarion call to other hunters. Thinking back, it was probably total hogwash... but it made sense to me at the time. Certainly far more quaint - and quintessentially English - than the two other candidates mentioned here...
Simon , Oldham
I heard Gordon Bennett was a "hanging" judge, in Victorian London. However I would prefer it to have originated from the hairdresser of that name from East Coews, Isle of Wight in the 1970s. The country's best known hairdresser then!
I would like to know where the term "Tom" - for a prostitute - came from (e.g from "Tom, Dick and Harry" perhaps...but where did that originate?). Please let me know if you know that one. Regards - Neil.
neil nicholson, bournemouth
"Balderdash", in my experience is always followed by "and tarradiddle", not "piffle".
Might have a connection with the poem, 'Balder dead', I think by Matthew Arnold(?)
alma newton, Conwy LL31 9JR
All my life (60 years)I have always understood the phrase "Gordon Bennett" To represent a social faux pas. More recently I have heard the account at the bottom of your tale - it's one I prefer and the only one I have heard.
I prefer to think that term 'Gordon Bennett' came from the worlds first playboy and it's the origin I'll continue to cite. Even if it's probably not historically correct it is slightly more interesting...
Matthew Gordon Bennett, Derby
What about the leader of the Australian troops in Singapour during the fall (WW2) in 1942? Another Gordon Bennett much despised for his hasty exit back home when things went sour.
trevor parsons, St Albans
I'm still confused as to who invented the word 'chav' that became popular in 2006, up north in Newcastle we've been using the word 'charv' to describe exactly the same kind of burberry wearing loser since i was a wee 'charv' at school. I'm sure i can find an old school bus decorated by slogans including the word charv.
Nick Wardle, Newcastle
For us confused Yanks, could you be just a bit more specific about the words you illustrate? Not only do I not know their origin, I don't know what they mean!
Confused Yank, Potsdam, NY 13676 US
I wonder if Gordon Bennett!!! refers to the Australian General who was accused of deserting his men at the fall of Singapore.
AndyM, Warwick, England
I have always understood that "taking the Mickey" was related to the Irish being called Micks and Paddys, and the fact they could be teased because they weren't quick enough to understand the rudeness or offense of the comment.
Jon, UT, USA (expat)
Me and some mates made up words at school for a laugh - one was more of a silly sound, 'nyng.' We would say it over and over and we thought it was hysterical. It never caught on. Great days though.
The Avenue Gordon Bennett in Paris therefore must be named after Gordon Bennett Jnr.?
richard beckett, birmingham UK
Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue cited Gordon Bennett as an obstreperous newspapaer millionaire prone to embarrassing pranks. perhaps he can help with a citation
L De La Foret, Milton Keynes
As far as I thought, the origin of the phrase 'Gordon Bennett!' came from when a man named Gordon Bennett flew a plane through an open barn. People gasped "Gordon Bennett!" in surprise.
Chris Morton, Plymouth, Devon
Acccording to the h2g2 section of the BBC websites, in an article on the origins of English swearwords, 'taking the mickey' derives from 'taking the micturial' and never had anything to do with anyone called Michael.
Emma Bates, Kendal, UK
I had always thought Gordon Bennett referred to Gen Gordon Bennett of the Australian Forces in Malaya prior to the fall of Singapore. He is chiefly remembered for having abandoned his forces to their fate, slipping back to Australia immediately prior to Singapore's surrender. Information about him is available in Wikipedia. More scathing assessments can be found in various histories of the colonial forces involved in the Malayan campaign.
D Huen, Cambridge
The story I've read is as follows:- The Gordon Bennett Cup for motor racing was won by a British Driver and car (Selwyn Edge in a Napier) in 1902. Under the rules of the competition, Britain would be the host for the race in 1903. A circuit was laid out on closed public roads in Co. Kildare, Ireland. Due to the sudden influx of wealthy foreign visitors to the area, the local cafe and bar owners took the opportunity to raise their prices and make a quick killing. Locals reacted to the inflated prices by exclaiming 'Gordon Bennett!'
Brian Humphris, London
My grandparents used the expression 'Jesus H Christ', later immortalised in the comedy 'The Blues Brothers'.
Candace, New Jersey, US
I was reading the article of the day yesterday on Arthur Earnest Percival, who tendered the surrender of the British Forces in Singapore, and saw a reference which might explain the recent entry of "Gordon Bennett" into speech as an exclaimation of "why on earth did ...". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Gordon_Bennett Given the role that the person apparently played this may be a reason for his name being used in such a fashion?
Mike Bird, Sutton, UK
I thought Gordon Bennett was a reference to a disgraced Australian Officer who, during WWII, escaped from a POW camp leaving his men captive.
Andrew Greenwood, Sheffield, UK
Gordon Bennett - Although I cannot verify this I remember my mother using the expression in the 1940s and I have used it frequently ever since as a nearly-but-not-quite swearword. A handy little phrase to have in one's verbal armoury and much more pleasant than most alternatives.
Tony Foreman, Hemel Hempstead, UK
Even though its first appearance in the OED was in 1969 I can recall hearing its use by Warren Mitchell's character Alf Garnett in "Til Death Us Do Part" in the early to mid-sixties. I had always assumed that it was a "made for TV" expression rather like "Cushty"(?) from "Only Fools & Horses"
Martin Johnson, London, Ontario Canada
Perhaps there is a tennis conection. The Stade Roland Garos in Paris is in Rue Gordon Bennett.
Nick Morrell, Miami, FL, USA.
Cutting the mustard anybody?
John R Suttle, BRIGHTON UK
Taking the Mickey comes from "Taking the micturation" - in other words taking the p**s.
1. I had an uncle Gordon Bennett (now passed away) and when people ask my name I say, Bennett as in Gordon) but hardly anyone believes he was my uncle. 2. My uncle Gordon always stated the the urinating tale was the source of the exclamation 'Gordon Bennett'.
Bob Bennett, Basingstoke, Hants, UK
Oh "sugar" its just polite way of saying "gor'blimey"
jon, edgware middx
In his book 'Made In America', Bill Bryson suggests that James Gordon Bennett was the originator of the term 'Gordon Bennett' because of his habit of annoucing his arrival in restaurants by 'yanking the tablecloths from all the tables he passed. He would then hand the manager a wad of cash with which to compensate his victims for their lost meals and spattered attire'.
Nick Webb, Brightlingsea, UK
I always took 'Gordon Bennett' to be a variation on 'Gawd blimey', or 'blimey', which is a polite version of 'God blind me'. All designed not to offend, along with 'cripes' and 'strewth' and Sunday opening.
Rolf Jordan, Wirral
There is an Avenue Gordon Bennet in Paris 16th.
ian sanderson, Paris
I understand that 'Gordon Bennett' was the commander of the Australian 6th Division in Singapore at the time of the cities fall. He wasn't very good at his job, failed to lead his troops well and allowed the Japanese to land on the island itsef, leading to the capture of singapores water supply and subsequent surrender. Maybe looking in Antipodean sources will find an older source??
James beeching, taunton somerset
Does anyone know the origin of `Bob's your uncle' - usually said by my father in the 40's 50's at the satisfactory conclusion of a repair eg bicycle chain etc etc!!
I always believed it was based on a footballer of that name.
Brenda Mowat, Edinburgh Scotland
I'm sure there is some connection with Gordon Bennett Jnr; it may not be unrelated that Roland Garros, the home of the French Open, is on Avenue Gordon Bennett, and that the Parc des Princes is also close at hand.
Graham Ward, St Albans
I would have thought that "phorr" (and the alternate spellings) came into use in UK English following the popularity of Terry Scott's recording of "My Brother" in the early 1960's (1962?). Whether the song actually originated the word, I don't know.
"Phorr, there's something funny round 'ere. What is it?
Oh, it's you... come 'ere and sit down.
You're gonna 'ave the truth told about you and put on record.
'Ere, please do not sit too close to me, I've just 'ad my breakfast, thank you."
Chris Malme, Peterborough
I'm afraid your researcher is mistaken, the Gordon Bennett balloon race is for hydrogen/helium balloons, not the hot air variety. This year the contestants took off from Belgium and the leaders landed in Finland and northern Norway having passed over the UK.
Kip, Norwich, UK
I have always thought that Gordon was God and Bennett was a version of Benedict making a religious oath similar to God bless us and such as zounds - short for God's wounds. For evidence there is Bene't St. in Cambridge - short for Benedict.
martin broadhurst, Cambridge UK
The explanation of 'Gordon Bennett' that Bill Bryson came up with in one of his books was GB Jnr would make an entrance at restaurants in New York by attempting the table cloth trick on other diners tables - to which they would shout 'Gordon Bennett' as the cutlery and crockery went clattering onto the floor.
Alex Kinch, Watford, Hertfordshire
Dear Beeb :
Your help, please, with one expression to which I have never received a sensible explanation :
Talking "NINETEEN TO THE DOZEN".....
Why Nineteen ? ; Why not Thirteen (as in the Baker's famous dozen) ? Why, oh ! why ?
Thank you in advance for solving a problem that haunted me for 50+ years !
Antony Jones, Abu Dhabi, UAE
I'm not sure if it's just urban legend, but apparently Gordon Bennett was a bit of an all-round nutter. He had a habit of attempting the trick of whipping tablecoths away from diners' tables without warning. The well-known exclaimation followed his regular failure.
John Humphreys, Canterbury, UK
I too am fascinated by the origin of certain terms and expressions. On a visit to the historic sites in Stratford on Avon one of the guides explaind a number of them eg one over the eight, and keep it under your hat. I think the premise of the TV series is excellent and amusing. Sadly the reality was less so. I and my family found the last series very dry and boring. the bizarre interviewing scenes with crusty OED dons and the need for contanst written evidence of usage and date rather than explaining more of the commonly used sayings and their beleived meanings made it very tedious. I heard the new series previewed on this morning's Today programme and will try again to watch, in the hope you might have 're-invented the wheel', attempted 'to build a better mousetrap' or simply 'lightened up dudes!'
Julie Tunnicliffe, Winchester, UK
There was a French teacher at our school called Gordon Bennett. Naturally, he had a sense of humour...
Alex Gray, Nottingham
I would like to propose "Mediocracy" - Rule of a country or nation by the media. I don't know whether it's already in the OED, but I like to think I invented it!
Sarah Bowyer, Reading, UK
My understanding of "Gordon Bennett" is that it relates to the playboy son, who's 'Bennett Trophy' races ended up decending into farce, with withspread cheating and rule breaking - the resultant mockery being directed at Bennett himself. Hence the name became a phrase, derogatory in nature. I have this mentioned in 2 separate motor racing history books, so believe it to be genuine!
Max Harris, Crawley
A more likely Gordon Bennet ( full name Henry Gordon Bennet but always known as Gordon ) was the Australian military officer of that name who was at first praised but later pilloried for escaping from the Japanese occupation of Singapore in February 1942, leaving behind the men he commanded to their fate.This effectively ended his career and after the war he was officially censured for disobeying orders.
Adrian Baron, Kinsgtown, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
I believe this is attributed to General Henry Gordon Bennett of the Australian Army who was in command of the Australian Forces at the surrended of Singapore in the Second World War. Having surrendered the force to the Japanese he then left his troops and escaped back to Australia and was never forgiven for this act.
john west, Limassol Cyprus
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