Years ago walking through the streets of Sydney in the rain with my brother, I had a very close call on a wet street corner. A car suddenly swerved left into the corner where we were standing waiting to cross the road spraying the water that had collected in the gutter. I had actually put my foot out to jump the puddle and my brother quickly slammed his arm across my body to push me back. We were both a bit shaken but I laughed it off by saying 'Whoops, nearly went for a Burton!'.
And so began a thirty minute discussion on where that phrase had come from.
We ruminated about the phrase as we wandered along Oxford Street. 'It's something Mum always says,' I remembered. 'It must be English, you know from England.' 'What's a Burton?' my brother wondered. 'It's a silly expression', I said. 'It doesn't mean anything'. But it niggled at me, and for years it niggled at me every time I heard Mum say it.
Then one day I was at a friend's house and they had book on the roots and meanings of words and phrases. And there, under G section was 'Gone for a Burton'.
It seems that in informal British English, something that has is broken, ruined or destroyed. But the original sense was slang for 'to meet one's death'. It was used in WW2 by the extraordinarily superstitious RAF. As was regarded as bad luck to announce that a man had died or was missing in action, the euphemism 'he'd gone for a Burton' was used.
And a Burton was a brand of beer.
Now, every time I go for a Burton I think of all those lost RAF men and their distraught RAF colleagues thinking fondly of them just drinking a beer.
Discovering the stories behind words and phrases is such an interesting pastime. And these days you can do it in a heartbeat with the Internet. What funny things does your family say?