Why Do the Brits Call the U.K. ‘Blighty’?

A regiment of Gloucestershires marching up Jamestown (with goat) during the Boer War 1899-1902 (Pic: AP-Photo)

A regiment of Gloucestershires marching up Jamestown (with goat) during the Boer War 1899-1902 (Pic: AP-Photo)

Homesickness can do funny things to people. It can create fierce patriotism where once there was just allegiance; it can create an idealized society in the mind, one in which no one is ever cruel or selfish or rude because that’s the society the homesick person wishes to return to; and it can distort language, so that emotive terms such as the name of home itself should be avoided in case of excessive lower-lip quiver.

Blighty comes out of feelings like these. It’s an affectionate nickname for Britain (or more specifically England) taken from the height of the Victorian rule of India, that was first used in the Boer War in Africa, and popularized on the fields of Western Europe in the First World War.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word is a distortion of a distortion: the Urdu word vilayati either means foreign, British, English or European, and it became a common term for European visitors to India during the 1800s. A mishearing changed the v to a b, and then bilayati became Blighty, as a term to describe British imports from home, such as soda water. There again, it was also claimed by Rupert Graves that it derives from the Hindustani word for home: blitey.

Having picked up some use during the Boer War (because nothing breeds in-jokes and slang like soldiers living and fighting in close proximity), the term really took off during the long years of trench warfare in World War I. Soldiers would talk openly of dear old Blighty, indicating not only a longing to be away from some of the most horrific battlegrounds in human history, but also a wish to return to a time when such horrors were unthinkable. This elegiac tone was caught and carried by the War Poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, both of whom used the word when describing their experiences.

The War Office soon picked up on this, releasing a free magazine for active servicemen called Blighty, which contained poems and stories and cartoons from men on the front line. Then there were slang terms like Blighty wound, an injury good enough to get a soldier sent home, but not life-threatening, as depicted in the 1916 Music Hall song “I’m Glad I’ve Got a Bit of a Blighty One” by Vesta Tilley.

A year later there was “Take Me Back To Dear Old Blighty,” which quickly became enormously popular both at home and abroad, sung by many artistes (and soldiers) and capturing something of that wistfulness for the pre-war era, while still maintaining appropriately gritted teeth at the unpleasant tasks ahead:

And as every fan of ’80s indie rock knows, this is the song that leads off the Smiths’ remarkable cultural critique “The Queen Is Dead” by which time the reference was more about feeling horrified by the state of British society in the ’80s than soldiers returning from a war:

So Blighty is a word that could only exist because the Brits had gone off all over the world exploring and invading, defending their interests and soaking up the languages; and yet it’s principal use was to conjure an image of a pre-colonial Britain, shorn of all foreign influence.

See more:
A History: Are Brits Better at Satire?
Why Brits Spell Words Like ‘Realize’ With an ‘S’
15 Good Reasons Why Brits Don’t Use The Name ‘Randy’
Why Did America Drop The ‘U’ In British Spellings?

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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