Shaggy dog story of our strangest expressions

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Where did the words "loo" and "flip-flop" originate? How did the name Gordon Bennett come to be used as an expression of exasperation. And who came up with the term "wazzock"?

Some of the most enduring etymological mysteries have been answered, after the public set about researching the provenance of popular words and phrases in a nationwide word hunt. Yesterday, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) announced it had updated its pages with 34 new definitions of words after the public helped to trace their history.

Surprisingly, the word "loo" has an aristocratic origin while "flip-flop" was predictably picked up by a serviceman stationed in the Far East.

The BBC television series Balderdash and Piffle uncovered the derivations with the help of viewers who sent in the earliest uses, and possible explanations, for a list of modern words as well as older phrases.

"Gordon Bennett", listed in the OED as a euphemism for Gorblimey, was found in a 1937 novel by James Curtis entitled You're in the Racket, too! which includes the phrase: "He stretched and yawned. Gordon Bennett, he wasn't half tired."

Meanwhile, "wazzock", listed as a stupid or annoying person, was found in a 1976 recording by the British folk singer, author and broadcaster Mike Harding.

The source for "flip-flop" was discovered in the customs declaration of a Royal Australian Air Force serviceman leaving Malaya in 1958.

The OED drafted a new definition for the word "bollocks" after viewers found it had been used as a term of praise by Superbike magazine in September 1981 when it hailed a scantily-clad woman with a motorcycle as "the Absolute Bollocks".

The BBC show also unearthed an origin for "loo", tracking it back to a letter written in 1936 by the actress Lady Diana Cooper to her husband Duff Cooper, sent from Tangiers, in which she wrote of every room in her hotel having a pretty Moorish bath and "a lu-lu à côté".

Tania Styles, the OED's etymologist, said of the letter: "It couldn't really refer to anything else. It has long been suspected that this euphemism for toilet was born in an aristocratic setting, and this blue-blooded evidence adds weight to this theory."

The programme had appealed to the public to send in proof of someone being called "one sandwich short of a picnic" before 1993, as well as the term "daft as a brush" being used before 1945 and "kinky" earlier than 1959.

John Simpson, the OED chief editor, expressed delight at the outcome of the public appeal.

He said: "What's great is that people have found the sort of earlier evidence which our own researchers couldn't realistically have tracked down, for example the hand-written customs declaration form which gave us " flip-flops".

This year's list contained details on the earliest known usage of 40 words. The OED agreed to update 34 of them after its compilers considered the new evidence. The new definitions have been added to its online edition and will be included in all updated book editions.

Last year's nationwide word hunt provided updated information on the origins of the ploughman's lunch, the 99er ice cream and "the full monty" among others.

To coin a phrase... 10 new definitions


Meaning: a bit crazy

First known reference: 1957 cartoon in Ohio Chronicle Telegram


Meaning: mad, "crackers"

First known reference: 1945 article, Daily Mirror

Daft (mad) as a brush

Meaning: bonkers or bananas

First known reference: The Labouring Life, 1935, H Williamson


Meaning: stupid person

First known reference: 1983 Channel 4 sitcom Father's Day

One sandwich short of a picnic

Meaning: lacking in common sense, a bit stupid

First known reference: 1985 article, Courier Mail, Brisbane

Dog's bollocks

Meaning: wonderful, marvellous

First known reference: 1981 Superbike magazine.

Regime change

Meaning: forced removal of regime

First known reference: 1987 article, The Washington Post

Shaggy dog story

Meaning: long, rambling yarn

First known reference: 1937 article, Esquire


Meaning: a stupid or annoying person, an idiot

First known reference: Mike Harding's One Man Show, 1976


Meaning: violent quarrel between married or cohabiting couple

First known reference: 1962 draft script of Z Cars