"Big girl's blouse"

Language Log 2019-09-06

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."