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There is an idiom that seems to be distinctly British: "---- this/that for a game of soldiers" where the dashes are replaced with various swear words. For example: "Sod this for a game of soldiers." It usually seems to involve profanity but there are some cleaned-up variations such as "Stuff this for a game of soldiers."

The basic meaning is clear: "---- this" expresses disapproval of a situation. But I'm curious about the modifying phrase.

My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the phrase is expressing a preferred alternative. "---- this, I would prefer to play a game of soldiers." My reason for this is that there is an alternative formulation, "---- this for a lark" where "a lark" means "a fun and carefree activity".

I have done Google searches and haven't found any authoritative source. Most sources seem to agree that there is a meaning of "this activity is not worth the trouble" or possibly "this activity is no longer worth the trouble".

I have found several sources suggesting that "game of soldiers" is somehow referring to the unpleasantness of war, which would suggest the meaning "---- this, the current situation has become an unpleasant one." But this seems highly unlikely to me as the related phrase cannot possibly be construed that way: a "lark" is never an unpleasant situation.

What does it mean? And where did it originate, did this come from the military, or what?

EDIT: Since posting this, I have come to think that maybe the overall sense of the phrase is "this activity is not worth my time," which may be a British understatement for some usages. (I saw this phrase in a web comic where explosions started happening and a character ran for his life shouting "Sod this for a game of soldiers!") "a game of soldiers" and "a lark" might both simply be metaphors for an activity with no real benefit. Thus, if someone waits for almost an hour for a late friend and then says "---- this for a game of soldiers" it could mean "to continue waiting would be as unprofitable a use of my time as playing soldiers" or more simply "--- this, it's not a good use of my time."

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  • Never, to my recollection, having heard the phrase before, and lacking any context, I would have some suspicion that "game of soldiers" might refer to boys playing with toy soldiers. I don't think this is so popular these days (what with video games, etc), but it used to be that boys between the ages of roughly 5 and 15 could occupy themselves for hours, either alone or in small groups, playing with soldiers. It was, of course, a rather meaningless activity, which would seem to fit the way the idiom is applied.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 22, 2016 at 23:03
  • (Note that the "soldiers" here would be small tin soldiers, originally cast in lead or zinc, and more recently in plastic, standing maybe 2 inches (5 cm) tall.)
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 22, 2016 at 23:24
  • I said several years ago that this expression was one of my personal favourites. But if I'm honest, I can't swear that I was familiar with it before the mid-80s when Jan Needle published a book of that name. Doubtless the expression must have been around before then, but it may well have gained much more traction since. Jun 23, 2016 at 0:13

13 Answers 13

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I always understood this to mean "this is no fun and a waste of time" and that the "game of soldiers" or "lark" we thought it would be - has turned into something far less fun. I.e. "this is a rubbish game of soldiers" "this is no fun if it's supposed to be a lark" The "Sod this/blow this/ ___ this" is meaning "who the hell thought this would be a good game of soldiers.

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  • Welcome to EL&U! We strive to create objective and well-referenced answers. Could you flesh out yours to add in some links, proving your answer? Take the Tour and see How to Answer for more. Oct 1, 2016 at 10:48
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Sod this for a game of soldiers/bugger this for a game of soldiers:

  • oath uttered when faced with a pointless or exasperating task popular expression dating back into the mid-1900s and possibly before this, of uncertain origin although it has been suggested to me (ack R Brookman) that the 'game of soldiers' referred to a darts game played (a variation or perhaps the game itself) and so named in Yorkshire, and conceivably beyond. There certainly seem to be long-standing references to 'soldiers' in darts games, for example when numbers on the board are allocated to players who then 'kill' each other's soldiers by landing darts in the relevant numbers. There is also a fundamental association between the game of darts and soldiers - real or perceived - since many believe that the game itself derived from medieval games played by soldiers using spears or arrows (some suggest with barrel-ends as targets), either to ease boredom, or to practise skills or both.

  • The allusion of the expression is to a difficult and painstaking or frustrating pastime, for which a game (perhaps darts, or some other reference now forgotten and lost) serves as the metaphor. See also ST FAGOS in the acronyms section. In this context (ack P Kone and S Leadbeater for raising this particular point) sod, and bugger for that matter, are expletives referring to the act of anal intercourse, which through history has been regarded by righteous sorts a most unspeakable and ungodly sin, hence the unending popularity of these words as oaths.

(Businessballs.com)

Blow this for a lark:

  • "Blow" in the sense of "damn" or "curse" was fairly common in the UK up until about 50 years ago - I remember my mother when surprised or irritated using "oh blow" undoubtedly as a euphemism for some swearword exclamation. I imagine it originally comes from a wish for the offending issue to be blown away - possibly to Hell - though I have no evidence of such. "Blow this for a lark (or laugh)" would still be understood here, though we'd be more likely these days to use "screw" rather than "blow". We might even say "screw this for a game of soldiers".

  • "Blow" in a pejoritive sense has of course recently got a new lease of life, courtesy of US English from what I understand, as in "let's blow this popsicle stand" or even the more vulgar "that blows".

  • As a side note, and to jump eagerly onto one of my favourite hobbyhorses, Terry Pratchett is of course one of the finest writers writing today.

    • Well...in the U.S. "blow" does mean leave. "Let's blow this firetrap." But it also means oral copulation. As in: "This blows," another way of saying "This sucks."'

(The Phrase Finder)

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  • Yeah, I found those links with my Google searches. I am unconvinced by the "darts" theory as "a lark" is unlikely to be difficult or painstaking. I continue to think that either the "for a..." phrase is a preferred alternative, or represents a waste of time, and I now favour the latter theory. I am amused by the "Saint Fagos" bit. "'For the love of St Fagos..." That's a nicely roundabout way to invoke this phrase!
    – steveha
    Jun 23, 2016 at 2:07
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I am 78 and have used this expression many times over the years, read it's usage, and also heard many others use it, including my own father who had fought in the war. From every usage heard it means the same every time, whether you were playing a game, fighting in battle, or having a long walk with others.

It means that, you were ok doing this activity, despite it's drawbacks, but now (with the added complications arising,ie, having to walk through a field of thistles, bombs dropping all around or even getting thrashed at every point of a game)...you had had enough and were getting out, using the expression,'Sod this for a game of soldiers', i.e. you were OK doing it,but with this extra burden thrown in, you were getting out, as it was now too much to bear willingly!

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  • The phrase has relatively recent military origins in which "game of soldiers" = "being in the army" OED -- P11. coarse slang (chiefly British). In imperative. sod (bugger, fuck, etc.) this for a game of soldiers and variants: expressing exasperation at a situation or course of action, typically with the implication that one intends to leave or give up. -- 1959 W. Hall Long & Short & Tall (1961) 29 You can stick this for a game of soldiers. -- 1975 Times 11 Aug. 10/4 As General Sir Harry Tuzo might well have concluded, * * * that for a game of soldiers.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 13, 2023 at 10:38
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I came across this discussion because an Australian friend asked me what "sod this for a game of soldiers" meant when I used it in conversation.

I'm a 50+ woman from Yorkshire, UK. My family is from Yorkshire going back hundreds of years.

It means: I thought this was going to be fun (a game) and it turns out to be far from it. That's it - there is no more meaning than that. The game is boys playing with toy soldiers. It is exactly as it seems and no more!

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As a child in the UK during the 70's I often heard "Sod this for a game of sojees" (Scottish vernacular - soldiers), and "Bugger (or sod) this for a lark", both essentially inferring the same meaning - this is pointless, let's do something else, but more worthwhile.

Somehow the delivery seemed understood even when the words weren't to the young ear.

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  • Oh yes, the intended overall meaning was quite clear, but I was keen to find out what the actual words meant. "---- this for a lark" being interchangeable with "---- this for a game of soldiers" gives me confidence that the "game of soldiers" was some fun activity. The answer I got on Quora convinced me that the overall meaning is "this activity is not an enjoyable thing." "---- this for a lark" == "this activity is definitely not a lark".
    – steveha
    Jul 22, 2021 at 5:28
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"XXX this ...for a lark/game of soldiers/good time.

Surely the essential sense of this construction (which I use and hear often) is that the speaker is saying that the activity they are engaged with is turning out to be a lot less rewarding/pleasing than they were expecting/hoping.

The activity used for comparison may be playfully facetious (e.g. a game of soldiers), or literally describing what it was that they had hoped to be doing (e.g. a lark; a good time ...).

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  • Are you saying definitively that the "for a game of soldiers" part is meant to represent what the speaker would rather be doing? So the meaning of the phrase is "---- this, I'd rather be playing a game of soldiers"?
    – steveha
    Jun 28, 2016 at 22:22
  • @steveha - No. I reckon in many cases 'a game of soldiers' is used unthinkingly (as per my first para). Playing at soldiers (as opposed to being one really) can be fun but there are usually many ways the game can stop being fun! Perhaps using this phrase to criticise an activity helps communicate that, like soldier games, the activity was of doubtful fun potential in the first place...? (i.e. whose ridiculous idea was it that this idea would be fun?)
    – Dan
    Jun 29, 2016 at 12:44
  • The whole point of this question is to find out the intended meaning of the phrase "for a game of solders" or "for a lark". Your comment now gives me a third theory. For review, the three theories are: 0) the phrase is something the speaker would rather be doing; 1) the phrase is something that is a waste of time, and the speaker is thus metaphorically saying the current situation is a waste of time; or now 2) the speaker is metaphorically saying the current situation was unlikely ever to be fun in the first place.
    – steveha
    Jun 30, 2016 at 18:00
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Nigel Rees, A Word in Your Shell-like: 6,000 Curious and Everyday Phrases Explained (2004) has this relevant entry:

sod this for a game of soldiers (or beggar this ... or blow that ... or fuck this ...) Expression signifying that one is giving up some activity through exhaustion or disillusionment. 'Beggar' is, of course, a soft form of 'bugger', but quite what is meant by a game of soldiers in either version of the expression is not totally clear. Perhaps the speaker considers the activity being abandoned as pointless as a game of toy soldiers or as futile as the 'army game' (life as a professional). Compare FUCK THIS (OR THAT) FOR A LARK! [The entry for this term reads "Expression of disgust at some chore or duty imposed. Mostly British use since the 1940s. Laurence Olivier is said to have used a cod French translation: 'Baisez cela pour une alouette.'"] Perhaps none of these date from before the Second World War. 'I met him in the pub one summer. I'd just been stood up by a man I was having a relationship with. Blow that for a game of soldiers, I thought, when suddenly Jim appeared from one corner of the pub and offered me a drink' – Independent on Sunday (13 February 1994).

Eric Partridge & Paul Beale, A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984) notes that 'skittle' sometimes replaces 'soldiers' in variants of the expression:

fuck that (or this) for a game of skittles (or soldiers)! and fuck that (or this) for a lark! Elaborations of fuck that!, an emphatic condemnation of any activity in which one is , or could be, forced to join. the exclam[ation] being often ruefully joc[ular], since there is no help for this situation. Soldiers is an army var[iant] of C.20; skittles, which often implies underhand cunning, also C.20; lark, since latish C.19. The shortest, the orig[inal] and basic, prob[ably] throughout C.19–20, is as so often, the strongest; orig[inally] very low.

I didn't have any luck finding early pre-1970 instances of "[blank] this for a game of skittles," but Google Books searches turned up several seemingly on-point instances of "[blank] this for a game of soldiers." Not surprisingly, the earliest instances appeared in military contexts.

James Landon Hodson, Through the Dark Night: Being Some Account of a War Correspondent's Journeys, Meetings and What Was Said to Him, in France, Britain, and Flanders During 1939–1940 (1941) [combined snippets]:

I met a man today who lives near a spot where air battles frequently occur. On his wireless he can hear warnings and messages called by radio from one pilot to another. The Germans shout, "Achtung! Achtung! Spitfieren! Spitfieren!" He heard a British pilot shout to another, "Keep out, don't be nosey!" He wanted that fight to himself. In the middle of a very hot mixed-up fight one of our men remarked drily on his radio, "What price this for a game of soldiers!"

From Hashomer Hatzair in Great Britain, Forging the Link: A Handbook of Hashomer Hatzair 1952 [snippet view]:

A cold gust of wind fans your face, you shiver slightly, you have been standing still, "get moving," you say to yourself, only another hour to do, the rifle is heavy, brrrr, blow this for a game of soldiers, they have no consideration at all.

From Willis Hall, The Long and the Short and the Tall: And Each His Own Wilderness, in The New English Dramatists, volume 3 (1961)[combined snippets]:

BAMFORTH: It's a crumb patrol. It's just about the crummiest detail in the Far East is this, and no messing. Two days humping kit and two days back! Routine Patrol! You can stick this for a game of soldiers. Talk about the P.B.I. If ever there was an all-time crumb patrol, we're on it. {He glances round at WHITAKER, who has taken a needle, ball of wool, and a pair of socks from his pack and is busily engaged in darning.} What the hell are you supposed to be doing?

From Charles Wood, Cockade, in Plays and Players volume 11 (1963):

DICKIE BIRD: And I could. No – to be strictly factual there's only on thing I'm sweating on ...

Harry: You're sweating on him stopping ...

GARIBALDI: Get some in.

DICKIE BIRD: And that for a game of soldiers – I'd be back in that box with the instructions 'fore you can say F.F.I.

GARIBALDI: That's your sweat.

DICKIE BIRD: Don't come to me Jack. I'll be too busy sorting out rations.

And from Stanley Middleton, Terms of Reference (1966):

'You start the ball rolling,' Jake said.

'Damn that for a game of soldiers. You're the one ...'

'No,' Jake said. 'Say something to me. Rude or otherwise.'

'D'you know,' Robert said, 'I can't think of a ... Get stuffed. That do?'

The implication in these early instances seems to be that if the real-life military situation that the soldiers are talking about in each of these instances were a game of pretend warfare and they were children playing it, they would quit in disgust or annoyance. The tone of rueful jocularity mentioned in the description by Partridge & Beale seems very much in line with the tone of phrase's usage in the examples cited above.

The earliest four examples I have cited clearly take place in a military milieu; however, I can't tell what the setting is for the conversation in Middleton's novel. In any event, "[blank] this for a game of soldiers" was in use in nonmilitary contexts no later than the early 1970s.

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  • Amazing number of sources. I think you have shown that "game of soldiers" isn't really meant to invoke the military but rather something fun. If "game of skittles" works as well as "game of soldiers" the key part there must be "game".
    – steveha
    Feb 28 at 20:41
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Here is an answer on Quora, written by Leah Earl.

The “for” is in the sense of being or constituting — so the phrase as a whole means “this activity is a very poor approximation to a game of soldiers” (or “this activity is a very poor approximation to a lark”).

There seem to be differing opinions on what precisely is meant by “a game of soldiers”. From context it’s clearly meant to be something lighthearted and enjoyable[...]

Read the rest of the answer on Quora: https://www.quora.com/In-the-phrase-XXX-this-for-a-game-of-soldiers-what-is-the-meaning-of-the-last-part-of-the-phrase-starting-with-for#

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  • Game of soldiers = waste of time. The alternative using "lark" is sarcasm.
    – user363762
    Oct 7, 2019 at 21:29
  • Hi, user363762. You are saying that this answer is incorrect, but you don't say how you know it or provide any links to support your claim. I'm still convinced by that Quora answer; you haven't persuaded me yet. According to her bio, Leah Earl lives in the UK (and is "raising three children in London" so I guess lives in London) and she answers lots of questions about England and British stuff, so she's the best authority I have found so far who answered this question.
    – steveha
    Mar 10, 2020 at 1:53
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It can mean different but related things depending on the context.

If something is happening that reaches a point where you need to act "Sod this for a game of soldiers" means action is more important than a game of soldiers (whatever the origin of the phrase is).

If something is happening that you don't want to be part of it can mean that a game of soldiers (something very unimportant) is preferable to what is happening, often followed by your physical or participatory departure.

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  • Can you quote some references to substantiate this answer? As it stands, we have no idea whether you've researched this thoroughly or are merely guessing. Oct 25, 2018 at 8:00
  • This is a pretty good answer, based on UK English.
    – Jelila
    Oct 8, 2019 at 1:01
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I had always imagined that the 'game of soldiers' was a real one - the first world war, where soldiers lives were thrown away as if 'in a game'. They were 'cannon fodder' or expendable items, used.

I imagined that the phrase would have been uttered by a soldier in that situation 'fook this for a game of soldiers' meaning - 'hell - I'm in this shoddy game, this incompetent parody of a war' nothing more than 'a game of soldiers'.

And that, I imagined that this expression then continued to be interchangeably used in other situations that were similarly badly set up, badly run, or badly conceived of, by authority.

'Fook this for a game of soldiers' means - 'I'm out of here - let's do something else'. It is usually followed by leaving the situation.

It reminds me that some troops in the first world war, maddened by the firing and the carnage, did in fact run towards the border so that they would be shot down, to escape it by being killed.

Fook that for a game of soldiers.

I'm from the UK.

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Since an alternative to this is "---- this for a game of monkeys", I cannot see that it has anything to do with toy soldiers: I have always understood it to mean - from context - a total waste of time, and I have seen derivations that suggest that soldiers spend a lot of time doing nothing, especially in wartime, and would therefore invent trivial games purely to pass the time - games without winners, purpose or meaning. And monkeys would also do similar.

I personally think that it is a military expression, possibly coined in one of the various wars of attrition that The British Army has been engaged in, in its history.

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  • 1
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    Oct 25, 2021 at 9:52
  • I do feel that this academic insistence on the fact that someone else said it first in some article is somehow extra evidence that its 'true'.
    – Leo Smith
    Oct 27, 2021 at 18:15
  • I do not see how the fact that someone else has said the same thing in print elsewhere makes my answer any more factual. This is Bandar Log-ic - "We all say it, so it must be true".
    – Leo Smith
    Oct 27, 2021 at 18:17
-1

Historically soldiers were notorious for becoming engaged in silly and most times (e.g. the game of the "bisquit") non-sense games to kill the time, practice that over time gave them a poorly credible connotation and stereotype. Hence this old fashioned colloquialism (the original version was Sod this for a game of soldiers) compares the foolishness of a certain action/thing with that of "a game of soldiers"..from The Urban Dictionary

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    The urban dictionary isn't really the height of reliability, can you proffer any other sources? Jan 10, 2018 at 12:57
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I've always understood 'a game of soldiers' to refer to being a soldier. So, the expression, as I've always understood it, is: [swear word of your choice], I've had enough of "playing at" being a soldier because "this" (whatever you're supposed to be doing) has become a right fag (tedious, unpleasant, unending, utterly f-ed up, whatever). The "playing at" is just a reference to not taking unpleasant things seriously, hence "a game of soldiers" which has the same sort of emotion as the American chickenshit outfit, but with a more humorous bent as befits the English sense of humour. So, "playing at a game of soldiers" is serving in the army, sort of as a little tin soldier messed about with by the higher ups, with about as much consideration, and at the same time, just making light of the unpleasantness that life can bring.

I'm a 59-year old NZer, and recall the expression from way, way back. It's more my father's generation than mine.

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  • 1
    Per my comment posted several years ago, I was familiar with it from at least the mid-80s, and I've never heard it used in any "literal" sense relating to either actual soldiers doing anything, or people "playing" at being soldiers. It's just whatever fruitless / frustrating / boring activity you don't want to waste any more time doing. And it was very specifically always Sod this... back in the day - Fuck this... is much more recent. Feb 24 at 23:32

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