"Big girl's blouse"

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Americans following recent U.K. political antics have been able to learn a piece of British slang that's probably new to them — Martin Belam, "'You great big girl's blouse' – Johnson appears to insult Corbyn during PMQs", The Guardian 9/4/2019:

Boris Johnson's first Prime Minister's Questions was immediately embroiled in controversy after footage appeared to show him gesticulating towards Jeremy Corbyn, saying: "Call an election, you great big girl's blouse." […]

Johnson has form for previously using the phrase. In June 2017 he called Labour's election campaign chief a "big girl's blouse". And in 2007, when Gordon Brown was tipped to be on the verge of calling a general election in an era before the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, he reportedly told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Blackpool that if Brown didn't act: "We will say he's wimped out, we will say he's a big girl's blouse."

As the video clip indicates, lip-reading skills seem to be needed to transcribe Mr. Johnson's remark:

For the syntax and pragmatics of the phrase, see Marie Lodi, "I'm Sorry, But Do British People Actually Use 'Big Girl's Blouse' As an Insult?", The Cut 9.4/2019:

What even IS a big girl's blouse?

Aside from being a commonly worn women's garment, British people have used the term "big girl's blouse" as an insult, usually directed toward a man, to imply he is a coward, weak, or effeminate. Or, as my British friend told me, "it's the equivalent of calling a man a pussy or a wimp."

Amanda Montell, author of Wordslut: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, says that the phrase may be "about 50 years old," and is basically a synonym for a "sissy or a cowardly man with a low pain threshold." And, in case you're wondering, it's not a blouse that belongs to a big girl, but more like a girl's blouse that's big, according to an old article from BBC America.

More details about the origins of the phrase from Chris Lloyd, "Filibustered out by a big girl's blouse", The Northern Echo 9/5/2019:

This is an extraordinary phrase for an old Etonian to use as it apparently comes from a Lancashire sitcom, Nearest and Dearest.

Nearest and Dearest was first shown by ITV in 1969, and it featured Hylda Baker, a wartime musichall comedienne, playing Nellie Pledge. She ran the family pickled onion business with her brother Eli, but brother and sister fought like cat and dog, constantly bickering and exchanging northern insults.

For instance, Eli called Nellie a "knocked-kneed knackered old nosebag" and Neliie replied by calling Eli a "big girl's blouse". Hysterical.

Commentary has ranged widely — a couple of my favorites:

Hannah Banks-Walker, "'Big Girl's Blouse' Is Surely The Greatest Compliment Any Person Could Ever Receive", Grazia 9/5/2019 — "While the House of Commons descends into madness, Hannah Banks-Walker argues something far more important: the sheer power of an excellent blouse".

"Getting shirty: Corbyn handed 'big girl's blouse' as gift", Isle of Wight County Press 9/5/2019: — "A bemused Jeremy Corbyn was presented with a 'big girl's blouse' as he left his home on Thursday morning after remarks by Boris Johnson."



37 Comments »

  1. Robot Therapist said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 7:17 am

    I don't think it's really either the blouse or the girl that is big. "Big" is just an intensifier. The equivalent might be "you bigly are a girl's blouse".

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 7:24 am

    As a Briton (male, 70+), the expression does not seem at all remarkable to me, even from an old Etonian such as our present Prime Minister. I have never watched Nearest and Dearest, and have no idea where (or when) I first head the phrase, but unlike "f*** all"[1], the meaning was immediately clear to me.
    ——–
    [1] On first hearing the expression "f*** all" (at the age of 16), I asked my interlocutor if he meant "f*** nothing", an expression of which I had also never heard but which seemed far more logical to me, assuming, that is, that I had understand correctly the concept that he was seeking to communicate.

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 8:03 am

    I am happy to be informed that the correct parse is [big [girl's blouse]], not [[big girl's] blouse]. Although I'm also not sure how much tension there really is between the two parses since ceteris paribus the bigger the girl the bigger the blouse. But it is thus apparently *not* parallel to either the (US-only?) idiom "to put ones big girl pants/panties on" or, more Britishly, to Elvis Costello's song "Big Sister's Clothes."

  4. Robert Coren said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    @Philip Taylor: I'm not sure how I (USAn) figured it out, but I think I realized pretty soon after the first encounter that "fuck all" meant "nothing whatever".

    I took note, in the quoted passage, of the usage "has form", of which (in case anyone was wondering) the west-of-the-Atlantic equivalent would be "has a [criminal] record".

  5. Harry Campbell said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 9:28 am

    J.W. Brewer, may I refer you to the excellent clarification provided by Robot Therapist above. A big wuss, a big pansy, a big girl's blouse.

  6. Ben Zimmer said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 9:54 am

    See also Michael Quinion's entry on World Wide Words, which suggests a precursor that may predate Hylda Baker's use in Nearest and Dearest.

    It has been suggested that Hylda Baker invented the phrase in her stage act. If she didn't, where big girl's blouse came from is likely to remain a mystery. However, as a possible clue, Brian Edmondson told me that his Liverpudlian father, who died in 1979, always said "he's flapping like a big girl's blouse". This conjures up the twin ideas of a large garment flapping on a washing line and of a man flapping in the sense of panicking. It's plausible as the image from which the current version could have evolved.

  7. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 11:08 am

    I'm not sure I buy the big-as-intensifier theory, since in "great big girl's blouse" Johnson is clearly using "great" (and not "great big") as an intensifier. So "big" seems to be part of the fixed phrase "big girl's blouse".

  8. MICHAEL RAE said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 11:19 am

    My mam used to say it to me and my brothers if we were being a bit mizzly (crying) "Don't be such a flaming big girl's blouse." That was in the early 1950's. It was commonly used then. We lived in Bolton, Lancashire. Hilda Baker was also a Bolton girl so it is not surprising that she would use it in her comedy show.

  9. Jim said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 11:20 am

    "big girl's blouse" –> "blouse with excess fabric so it moves around" –> something that flounces –> he just called Corbyn a "f-gg-t" (derogatory term for homosexual)

    Cue the Social Justice Warrior attack squadron.

  10. C. Scott Ananian said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 12:54 pm

    @Robot Therapist: re "you bigly are a girl's blouse"…

    To me the more natural American-English analog would be, "You're a big girl's blouse, big league!" or "You are a big league big girl's blouse." It sounds awkward to put the intensifier between "you" and "are"; and "big league" does the same work that "great" does in the Prime Minister's formulation.

  11. Chandra said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 4:20 pm

    @Gregory Kusnick – "Great big" as an intensifier seems perfectly plausible to me. If you call someone a "great big baby" you're not referring to physical size, but intensifying the suggestion that they're childish.

    @Jim – What makes the reaction more contemptible than the slur?

  12. Bloix said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 4:42 pm

    "to put ones big girl pants/panties on"
    Oh dear. Pants in American English means trousers. To put on one's big girl pants is not a reference to undergarments. It is the relatively recent female version of the older "put on your big boy pants," meaning stop whining (or whinging, I suppose) and get to work.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 4:58 pm

    @bloix I have heard/seen both variants ("pants" and "panties") used by native female L1 AmEng speakers who certainly don't consider pants and panties synonyms. Maybe you think one is a more apt metaphor than the other, but once people pick up an idiomatic phrase they may not stop to think about it compositionally. And even if one variant originated via some sort of trans-Atlantic translation error, they are both extant now. There also seems to be some variation between "put on" and "pull up."

  14. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 5:30 pm

    Chandra: "Great big" is used that way in US English (chiefly by children in my experience), but my impression (perhaps incorrect) is that it doesn't have the same currency in UK English.

  15. Viseguy said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 5:33 pm

    Is there such a thing as a boy's blouse in contemporary BrE?* If not, is the girl's in big girl's blouse yet another intensifier? I somehow hesitate to call it redundant, even if blouse is strictly feminine.

    —–
    * In modern AmE, blouse primarily refers to an item of women's or girls' apparel, at least in my idiolect, as opposed to shirt, which used to be primarily masculine but has now largely sloughed off the shackles of gender.

  16. RP said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 6:15 pm

    Just in case anyone was tempted to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt on this one, it's just been revealed that he recently hand-scribbled a note (on an official government document) in which he referred to his predecessor-but-one as "girly swot Cameron".

    I'm not sure if the term "swot" is known in the US, but it refers to someone (of either gender) who is resented for studying excessively hard.

    @Viseguy, As a native BrE speaker, I've never known "blouse" refer to anything other than a girl's or woman's item of clothing – and such is the primary definition at https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/blouse , although it mentions that it formerly referred to a garment worn by manual workers, and can also refer to a jacket worn in the military.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 6:18 pm

    Unless I am mistaken, soldiers (of the male variety) wear blouses, so whilst there might not be such a thing as a boy's blouse in contemporary <Br.E>, there is (I think) a man's blouse. And now I see that there is such a thing as an explorer scout's blouse (male), so a boy's blouse would also seem to exist.

  18. Davek said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 6:22 pm

    "Johnson has form for previously using the phrase. "
    Is "form for previously" a British idiom meaning "precedent for" or is this just a misprint where the author typed "formerly", changed it it to "previously" and didn't completely delete the first version?

  19. RP said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 6:32 pm

    @Davek, The word "previously" is superfluous in the phrase "has form for previously". But yes, "to have form for" is an idiom meaning "to have a record of".

  20. Vireya said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 7:43 pm

    "Big Girl's Blouse" – also an Australian comedy TV show from the 1990s

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    September 6, 2019 @ 11:11 pm

    "Has form [for]" is normally reserved for the criminal classes, and implies that the person about whom it is said has previous convictions for the same or a similar crime. It is clearly being used in a jocular sense here.

  22. Thomas Lumley said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 1:48 am

    "has form for" in the sense of a criminal record shows up a lot in BrE crime fiction/drama (and, for all I know, real life), but it's pretty commonly used in the secondary sense as here of "has a record of doing X, with the implication that X is bad"

    I think ( and the OED confirms) this sense originally comes from the use in (betting on) horse races.

  23. Doug said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 9:30 am

    J.W. Brewer said:
    "I have heard/seen both variants ("pants" and "panties") used by native female L1 AmEng speakers"

    For what it's worth, I've generally heard "big girl panties," and from a quick web search, that seems more common than "big girl pants" or "big boy pants."

    I have always assumed it's a metaphor from toilet training. You encourage your little daughter by telling her she'll be able to wear "big girl panties" instead of wearing diapers like a baby.

    A mother I know remarked that girls are easier to toilet train than boys because "You can bribe them with pretty underwear."

    As you said, other people likely have different interpretations.

  24. Doug said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 9:33 am

    Can you just call someone a "girl's blouse," or is "big" a necessary part of the idiom?

  25. Gregory Kusnick said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 10:20 am

    Philip Taylor: "normally reserved for the criminal classes"

    Are you saying that white-collar criminals in the UK aren't normally thought of as "having form"?

  26. RP said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 10:20 am

    @Doug,
    "Big girl's blouse" is the only version of the phrase that I recall coming across.
    However, the OED defines "blouse" as "person regarded as feeble, cowardly, or emotionally over-sensitive; an ineffectual or effeminate male", and adds that the usage is "originally and chiefly" in the phrase "big girl's blouse". It gives two examples where the word "blouse" is used without "big" (and in one case without "girl's"):
    1994 I. Welsh Acid House 235 He sewed me up. Eight poxy stitches. I was right first time; Hobo was a namby-pamby blouse.
    1996 P. Gregory Perfectly Correct (1997) 93 It's not right that she's stuck with that girl's blouse Toby Summers.

  27. Robert Coren said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 10:46 am

    @Gregory Kusnick: "Are you saying that white-collar criminals in the UK aren't normally thought of as "having form"?

    Maybe he's not excluding :white-collar criminals" from "the criminal classes".

  28. Robert Coren said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 10:50 am

    @C. Scott Ananian: Robot Therapist's use of "bigly" is a reference to Donald Trump's having supposedly used the word in this manner a couple of years ago, for which he was roundly mocked all over the Internet; but it seems likely that he actually said "big league".

  29. Bart O'Brien said,

    September 7, 2019 @ 11:57 am

    Rhyming slang, anybody?
    'girl's blouse' = 'mouse'. Just a speculation. I know it doesn't quite work.

  30. RP said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 3:03 am

    By no means all British slang is rhyming slang, even if that's the best known kind of British slang outside the UK! So I don't think there's any particular call for such speculation/mythmaking.

  31. Trogluddite said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    This was one of my father's favourite jibes back in the early 70's when I was a child, and I never heard it without the "big". It also wasn't unusual for him to omit the blouse, using just "big girl" as an insult. This makes me wonder whether the "big" became idiomatic by analogy with similar insults, such as "big baby" for someone easily moved to tears – i.e. imputing that the target is exhibiting behaviour considered immature for their years.

  32. Rachael Churchill said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 3:44 pm

    "Big girl's blouse" was used in a play I saw at school in the 90s. I don't know when the play was written, but it was set in the years leading up to World War I – which means the playwright, at least, thought the phrase was that old. A boy got called a big girl's blouse for refusing to fight with another boy (he later became a conscientious objector in the war).
    I thought the play was called All The King's Men, but I can't find it online, only an unrelated political drama novel and film.

  33. Ray said,

    September 8, 2019 @ 5:22 pm

    the one time I heard "big girl's blouse" used (by an american co-worker) was when she was expressing a kind of self-conscious "manning up" or "getting professional" or "getting real" in a context where she was a new hiree who, in her effort to impress the department, failed. which led her to communicate that she had somehow learned something, and had put on "her big girl's blouse." so I think the expression has to do with an assumption of power or experience (the "putting on" of power or experience) while knowing one really didn't have the size or position to do so, and tip-toeing into it in a defensive, guarded, humorous way. it's basically passive aggressive: being a pussy or wimp about "entering the ranks" and "playing with the big boys."

  34. RP said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 6:35 am

    Do you definitely mean "big girl's blouse", @Ray? It's just everyone else here has described it as a British/Australian expression but you say an American used it. Could she have said "big girl pants"? Which is a different expression with a different origin and usage and different meaning.

  35. Chandra said,

    September 9, 2019 @ 2:34 pm

    @Ray – Possibly your co-worker heard the British phrase and assumed it meant the same thing as the similar American phrase that RP refers to. So it may have meant that to her in that moment, but judging from the many comments by British English speakers here, it does not seem likely to be the meaning that Boris Johnson intended.

  36. Philip Taylor said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 3:54 pm

    Just to clarify (in answer to Gregory K) — For me, the criminal classes are characterised by the fact that they intentionally and repeatedly break the law: there is no suggestion that they are also characterised by belonging to any particular social class or socio-economic group.

  37. Ray said,

    September 10, 2019 @ 8:42 pm

    @RP and Chandra — yes, she actually said "big girl's blouse." which at the time struck me as something out of oscar wilde or gilbert and sullivan (like, I actually had a mental image of a gibson girl), and so the expression came off as somehow literary and pretentious (and british), but resignedly and self-consciously so (on several levels; she wasn't what you might call confident or shapely or fashionable, but terribly aware of challenging status quos…)

    almost as if putting on a "big girl's blouse" implied being "corseted" in order to be acceptable or taken seriously. in the context of johnson vs. corbyn, you could maybe say that boris is framing jeremy as a failed weakling who aspires to power/popularity/acceptance by "fitting in"

    ??

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