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In the article, "Not nein...but TEN reasons why we should love Germany", the following phrase is being used:

LET’S face it, Britain and Germany have a little form over the past century.

Obviously being some kind of typical British humour (I suppose), what does "to have a little form" mean exactly, where does it come from and is it also used in the US?

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  • 1
    Seems like it means that they both have have had little agreements (so basically, mostly disagreements) on various matters over the past century.
    – Mohit
    Jan 25, 2013 at 16:12
  • 2
    @Mohit: that would be little agreement or few agreements, and really isn't what this means at all. Jan 26, 2013 at 12:29
  • @Downvoter: why the downvote?!? How can I improve the question? Thank you
    – vonjd
    Apr 24, 2023 at 9:27

3 Answers 3

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ODO on form

The relevant entry is 7c; none of the others really fit the context:

7 [mass noun] the state of a sports player or team with regard to their current standard of play:
they are one of the best teams around on current form

  • details of previous performances by a racehorse or greyhound:
    an interested bystander studying the form
  • a person’s mood and state of health:
    she seemed to be on good form
  • British informal a criminal record:
    they both had form

In OED it’s moved down to 16c:

c. slang. (Without preceding article.) A ‘police record’; a criminal conviction.

In this case it doesn't actually mean “a criminal record”; it means “a history of criminality” or “a history of conflict against each other”.

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  • Shouldn't it then be "had a little form"? It sounds more like "have a little argument about the past century".
    – vonjd
    Jan 25, 2013 at 16:19
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    No; even a criminal going straight still "has form" -- he's just not adding to it.
    – Andrew Leach
    Jan 25, 2013 at 16:21
  • It wasn't our fault, guv. Jan 25, 2013 at 16:36
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    @vonjd: The interpolated "little" is unusual in this context. To have form is pretty much a fossilised term that isn't normally broken by adjectives in this way. But your precise context is indeed an example of "typical British humour", in that the extra word breathes life into what would otherwise be a somewhat stale cliche. Jan 25, 2013 at 17:20
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    I think the "little" saves the analogy. It takes a rather ridiculous understatement and turns it into an utterly ridiculous one, which makes it clearly humour rather than poor choice.
    – Jon Hanna
    Jan 25, 2013 at 18:04
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Police print out a criminal record in a common format so it's easy to locate the information. That is, it has a predictable form (arrangement), like any well-designed form (document with consistent placement of specified information).

Thus, form becomes a synonym for record. To have a form becomes shortened to have form, much as to graduate from a university has been shortened to graduate university (which violates the meaning of graduate, but that deserves a different soapbox).

When a suspect has form, the record establishes a pattern of behavior. Thus, to have form, generalized, becomes a metaphor for having a history of certain actions.


From Death in Paradise, season 7, episode 7, Dark Memories:

DI Mooney: And he has form [a criminal record], right?

DS Cassell: Two charges of theft and one for aggravated assault.

(later)

Officer Hooper: We've got a guy in custody with proven form [pattern of behavior] and he's confessed to the murder.


Britain and Germany have a little form over the past century, then, means that the two countries have a history of interactions following some pattern.

Little qualifies form with an ironic understatement of the degree of the pattern. In other words, the author is saying, Britain and Germany have a considerable pattern of interactions over the past century.

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  • Although 'form' is often laudatory when used of a sportsman or racehorse, even without modifiers such as 'good', 'fine' (eg 'in/on form'), I'd say there is a default to the pejorative (probably owing largely to the criminal sense). So " 'Britain and Germany have a little form over the past century', then, means that the two countries have a history of interactions following some nasty pattern". Apr 21, 2023 at 11:07
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I arrived here because I was looking for the etymology of the phrase "has form". I first encountered it in a John Le Carre spy novel.

I have heard/read somewhere that in that context the phrase meant "they're some sort of trained/experienced spy", i.e. "form" meaning competency.

I also remember reading that it was a British expression, so it would make sense if it was by analogy to an experienced criminal, i.e. it's not a commentary on the fact that the person has a criminal record, so much as that the person is a career criminal, i.e. a "professional criminal" and hence should be approached/investigated with caution and attention to detail.

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