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Quite often - particularly in the media - I see British examples of things being referred to "A Very British... " whatever it is

e.g. a documentary about the British building their first nuclear bomb was called "A Very British Bomb" - but, OK it was British in that it was made in Britain, but I couldn't see what was "very" about it... (It didn't spray tea and crumpets everywhere or anything)

I don't see it applied to other nationalities (e.g. you wouldn't really see "A Very French... " or "A Very Irish... ")

A quick google search for "A Very British" shows up loads of examples, but noticeably a book from 1982 called "A Very British Coup" - are they all spawning from that or is it just another example?

Edit

To clarify, I'm not just talking about the words "very British" but more the commonality of the use of "A Very British" (I'm not sure of how I'd explain - perhaps that needs another question!) almost as a title or a self-contained grouping of words.

For example: If I asked you where does the common usage of the words "Big Brother" come from, you might say George Orwell's 1984 (if not the TV show! But even there it originates with 1984) - it has a specific use outside just a brother who's big. You probably wouldn't tell me there's nothing special about "big brother" just because a google ngram shows that "little brother" is used more than "big brother"

N-gram, little brother, big brother

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    It actually is an expression used also with other nationalities : books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Aug 11 '16 at 10:23
  • @Josh61 Try it capitalised and you'll see what I mean... books.google.com/ngrams/… – colmde Aug 11 '16 at 10:49
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    I suggest you editit your question and make clear what you are actually looking for. – user66974 Aug 11 '16 at 10:55
  • I now really want them to replace Trident with a submarine that fires tea and crumpets - 'oh look, tea and crumpets, we must be at war' – Michael B Aug 11 '16 at 17:44
  • Interesting question. A cursory search of Google Books turns up examples of the phrase as early as 1833. I'm not sure why the question was closed as off-topic--it's no more off-topic than any of the many other questions about the origins of idiomatic phrases. – JEL Aug 18 '16 at 6:38
13

I think that they are, intentionally or unintentionally, referencing that book, which was also made into a 1988 BBC Channel 4 TV series.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Very_British_Coup

When the coup is described as "very British", I believe that they mean "non violent and polite", compared to, for example, military coups in South America which are often very violent and disruptive. In contrast, the "coup" of the title merely involves political machinations involving the civil service and newspapers, via a publishing magnate.

So, to describe something else as "A very British X" carries the implication that it is non-violent and relatively "gentlemanly" compared to what one might normally expect.

In the case of "A very British bomb", I agree that apart from being made in Britain, I don't think there's anything stereotypically British about it, and I don't think it really deserves the implications I refer to above: I don't see how a British nuclear bomb could be more "polite" than an American one for example. I think it's just a bit of lazy titling.

Alternately, the phrase may actually just be taken to mean "Something happening in Britain which you wouldn't normally associate with Britain."

As an aside, the plot of the novel actually seems very similar to what is happening with Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labour Party, at the moment, and if Rupert Murdoch started colluding with the civil service to bring him down then it would actually mirror the plot perfectly. We'll have to wait and see...

  • Interesting, but OP is asking about where the "very British" expression come from, and why, apparently, it is used only with reference to British people. – user66974 Aug 11 '16 at 10:33
  • @Josh61 - yes but in particular "A Very British" as a sort of stock phrase or being reused as part of a title if you know what I mean, not just "very British". So the answer is relevant although I think it's more than just politeness... – colmde Aug 11 '16 at 10:36
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    They're asking specifically about the phrase about "A very British X" and I'm saying it comes from this book. – Max Williams Aug 11 '16 at 10:43
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    In context of a coup "very british" has nothing to do with non-violence; more likely it refers to a veneer of civility that may exist in parliament. There are a lot of antiquated rules and traditions about conduct in parliament for example politicians of the same party will refer to each other as "my honourable friend" and opposing party members as "the honourable gentleman/lady". So the coup in question would be conducted, in public at least, with honour and politeness, while perhaps in private it is ruthless, full of bile and the final knife delivered with a reassuring "bad luck old chap". – Mr_Thyroid Aug 11 '16 at 16:26
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    Wasn't it a Channel 4 TV series, rather than BBC? – bdsl Aug 16 '16 at 23:10
9

This is a snowclone title format, likely inspired by the book/documentary that you and Max Williams have identified.

From the Wikipedia article linked above:

[A] Snowclone is a neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template . . . . A typical example snowclone is . . . "X is the new Y", in which "X" and "Y" may be replaced with different words or phrases . . . .

In other words, someone coins a catchy phrase, and other folks latch onto it as a MadLib for their own purposes.

I note that this snowclone is catchy enough that it was co-opted for the brand-specific "A Very Brady X": A Very Brady Christmas actually aired in December 1988, the same year as the A Very British Coup television series, and has since spawned A Very Brady Movie, A Very Brady Sequel, etc.

For those who are not sure that this is "a thing": Ngram is case sensitive, so for a title snowclone it's important to use title case.

enter image description here (Source)

I'm not sure why this particular template has caught on; possibly the order of words sounds in some way British. For comparison, the phrase "A very good day to you, sir!" sounds vaguely British to my (American) ear. It's also possible that the Brady version has reinforced the original, as familiarity helps the phrase just sound right.

I also note that this kind of superlative for nationalities isn't unique to this phrase; a similar, more pervasive snowclone is "All American X":

DET All American vs DET Very British (Source 1) (Source 2)

  • If you look closer at the "All American" it is not representative of the case. googlebooks.byu.edu/?c=us&q=49536826 A lot of the ngrams do not refer to constructions as the OP describes. Starting wit a company name in the Top 3 and the "All American youth something" towering on top with nearly no uses in the OP's sense. – Helmar Aug 11 '16 at 21:08
  • @Helmar, I'm not sure what you mean. I wasn't saying that it was an identical snowclone to "A Very British", just that it is an example of a set phrase of the form [superlative][nationality], which maybe suggests that this is a useful thing. Of course, "All American" is used in many more contexts than "A Very British" or "very British", but I suspect it would often be preferred over "very American" in places where you would see "very British" rather than "all British". Thus in a Google search, "an all American war" > "a very British war" > "a very American war" > "an all British war". – 1006a Aug 11 '16 at 21:41
  • I agree and it's a valid point, but it's not as common as your ngram suggests. Not by far. Have a look at my link. A lot of those hits continue like this "All American women/kids/men/dogs/people do something totally boring and unrelated to the question". Therefore your second ngram is highly misleading. – Helmar Aug 11 '16 at 22:32
  • @Helmar I think you're right about the scale of the difference—it's why I only said "more pervasive" rather than "much more pervasive originally, as I knew it was an issue. (I did look at your link earlier, as well.) Hopefully the new charts are a little clearer about the (fairly conservative) point I was trying to make. – 1006a Aug 12 '16 at 15:45
  • @1006a thanks for this, I'd not encountered "snowclone" before, it's my word of the day! – Max Williams Aug 17 '16 at 7:29
5

In fact there appears to be nothing exceptional about the phrase a very British. Here's from Google Books Ngram: enter image description here

The earliest examples I could find are from the 1820s and 1830s: enter image description here

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    You may be right, but it's more its use as a kind of stock phrase that I am thinking of, as opposed to a reference to something really being very or uniquely British. – colmde Aug 11 '16 at 10:23
4

Apologies for such a simple observation, but this seems to clinch it in favour of your theory:

ngram A Very British vs A Very British Coup

interactive version

Use of the phrase "A Very British" (with capitalisation) commences with use of that title (although slightly before the book's publication for some reason), and does not diversify until around the time of the TV series. So, while not all users necessarily are referencing A Very British Coup intentionally, so far as Google's corpus is concerned that's where it started. Before A Very British Coup people didn't appear to use A Very British at all.

To my untrained eye, the rate of climb of "a very British" seems also to increase following the TV series, but it's less blatant:

enter image description here

1

I disagree substantially with Max Williams. As jacinto points out, the phrase is used long before the 1988 show he refers to, and doesn't even show a noticeable spike after it. It's hard to understand why the title of the show would have been chosen if the phrase wasn't understandable to viewers.

Calling something 'British' can mean a number of things. A British car can be built in Britain or designed in Britain. A British athlete is a British citizen. But one of the meanings is "British in style" or "embodying qualities thought of as British". It's that meaning that is usually carried by "very British".

An athlete born in Britain is British, but if they are also load, brash and aggressive they would not be considered "very British" (since those are not qualities typically associated with Britishness). One who was understated and restrained might be.

The show "A Very British Coup" certainly reflects that. The coup in question is not only British in that it takes place in Britain, but also displays the stereotypical characteristics of Britishness. But I don't believe it is the origination of the phrase.

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