The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bun-fight as:

a jocular expression for a tea-party

The OED gives a single quote, from 1928, which uses the words wayzgoose and Eisteddfod and is thus not very helpful, even after one looks up those words.

At the other end of the scale (erudition or stuffiness, take your pick), The Urban Dictionary defines bun-fight as:

A sustained, overblown argument about a petty matter, usually personal in nature to the participants but not to everyone else.

According to WiseGEEK, the origin may be in the late 19th century, and the term can mean either a formal event, a large party or a petty argument.

There is perhaps a difference in British and US usage.

World Wide Words offers an explanation of the origin as Victorian children squabbling over buns and cakes at teatime, but has no back-up evidence. Expressions and Sayings says much the same as World Wide Words.

Although everything the above sources say sounds reasonable, does anyone have evidence of the origin of the phrase and evidence of how it came to have such disparate meanings?

Finally, towards the end of the comments on another, unrelated question, one of ELU's most erudite gurus offers as a hypothesis that

It derives from disputes between antagonists who are both hot and cross.

???

  • 2
    Personally, I do hope that the "erudite guru" referred to by OP does not have his erudition severely dented by partaking of a "hot and cross" bun out of season. For that reason, my bun-of choice has to be a good old Chelsea, available year-round at all good bakeries on the High Street near you! – Peter Point Oct 1 '16 at 1:26
  • 1
    Is that long-hand for "I don't know"? – Mick Oct 1 '16 at 1:38
  • @Mick Sharpe Evidently, my attempted bun-on-a-pun collapsed in on itself! – Peter Point Oct 1 '16 at 3:53
up vote 3 down vote accepted

The term bun fight is evidently widely used across nations of the old British Commonwealth and goes back to the late 1800s.


'Bun fight' in slang dictionaries

The traditional meaning of bun fight appears in a glossary entry in Hippocrene Language and Travel Guide to Britain (1996):

tea fight or bun fight — tea party

Jonathon Green, The Dictionary of Contemporary Slang (1984) offers a bit of a twist on that definition:

bunfight n. a tea party, esp. with image of children struggling for sticky buns.

This suggests a fight over buns rather than with buns.

Ann Barr & Peter York, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook: The First Guide to What Really Matters in Life (1982) explicitly takes issue with the Oxford English Dictionary with regard to the term's meaning, though why we should believe Barr & York is not entirely clear:

bun-fight n. Crowded party where you have to fight to get something to eat. (The Oxford Dictionary errs in supposing bun-fight means tea-party.)

Norman Schur, British English A to Zed: A Definitive Guide to the Queen's English (2013) takes a more demure line:

bun fight, n. approx. very large tea party Inf[ormal] Sometimes bun feast. There is no equivalent jocular American colloquialism. Can also apply to a cocktail party or similar get-together.

Eric Partridge manages to multiply the difficulty by finding ten additional terms to grapple with. First from Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, second edition (1938):

bun-feast or -fight. A tea party : late C. 19–20 coll[oquial] Cf. crumpet-scramble ["A tea-party : from ca. 1860 : coll[oquial] Derby Day, 1864, 'There are men who do not disdain muffin-worries and crumpet-scrambles.'"], muffin-worry ["muffin-fight ; muffin-worry. A tea-party : coll[oquial] resp[ectively] ca. 1885–1910 and 1860 H., 2nd ed. (also in Ouida, 1877). O.E.D."]"].

his edition of Partridge also has an entry for bun-struggle or bun-worry:

bun-struggle or -worry. A tea-party for sailors or soldiers : military and naval : from ca. 1870. In C. 20 the struggle form is ob[solete]. Cf. tea-fight ["A tea-party : 1849. Albert Smith (O.E.D.): s. ca. 1880, coll[oquial]. Occ[asionally] tea-scramble (C.20 : Manchon) and tea-shine [1838]"].

And then from Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, eighth edition (1984):

bun-beat or -fight. A tea-party: late C.19–early 20 coll[oquial].

So that brings the jocular variants on a tea-party theme to a crooked baker's dozen (bun-beat, bun-feast, bun-fight, bun-struggle, bun-worry, crumpet-scramble, muffin-fight, muffin-worry, tea-fight, tea-scramble, and tea-shine).


'Bun fight' in the wild

Limiting the inquiry to the bun-based terms, I find these early specimens. From William Black, Wild Eelin: Her Escapades, Adventures & Bitter Sorrows (1898):

Miss Eelin, I can see you on the first floor of the Old Ship, looking out. Oh, I know the place; trust me; you trust me: if I can't order a ripping little lunch for the two of us, then take me away and fling me into the nearest horse-pond. And you're coming to the ball tonight. Yes, you are. Your mother's sure to be better by then. I'll be waiting for you—now mind. All the barn-doors; and we'll sit out the lancers—and the waltzes, too, if you like; and we'll make it a perpetual bun-fight for old Mother Helmsdale. ...

From "Temperance at Shahjehanpur," in The Thin Red Line: The Regimental Paper of the 2d Batt., (Princess Louise's) Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (April 1899):

Previous to this there had been a "bun-fight" with an enormous casualty roll, and afterwards there was a concert in which several friends of the Royal West Kent Detachment figured conspicuously.

From Lilian Quiller-Couch, "The Love Affairs of Patricia—I Try to Amuse Cousin George" in The Saturday Evening Post, volume 174 (1901):

A ray of understanding crossed Cousin George's face.

"I'm not going to that blessed old Sunday-school bun-fight," he declared decidedly.

"It is to be deplored," I remarked to the sky, "when the educated classes sink into vulgarity of expression."

From "The Library Press" in The Library World: A Medium of Intercommunication for Libraries (February 1902):

The Library Assistant for January contains a portrait of Mr. A. Cotgreave, reports of various meetings and of the fourth annual bun fight, a short article on " How to Popularise a Public Library," by Mr. W. J. Harris, and interesting notes and news.

From "Stray Shots from Solomon," in The Canadian Shoe and Leather Journal (May 1905):

SHAMBLING TO THE SHAMBLES.—There go two fellows towards the corner, the first marches ahead with a swagger and stride like that of a hero; the second follows two paces in the rear with a sheepish look that betokens the realization that the "fatted calf" is about to be killed on his behalf. The bustling energy of the first is apt to lead you to the conviction that there is some important business on hand, while the slinking gait of the second, would make him a dead easy winner in a natural modesty contest at a Sunday School bun fight.


'Bun fight' as trouble

When bun fight came to mean (figuratively) a spat, dispute, or other conflict is difficult to identify with specificity, but it certainly had that meaning in "Bun Fight Over a Sex Book," in the [Sydney, New South Wales] Bulletin (1980) [combined snippets]:

An extraordinary bun fight has broken out in New York's precious literary world over Gay Talese's book on American sexual mores, Thy Neighbor's Wife. Critics have panned it with unusual ferocity and Talese has hit back with even more venom. Philip Mobile reports on Page 66.

From Australian Government Publishing Service, Proceedings of the Conference, volume 1 (1982) [combined snippets]:

MR SCHMIDT (General Manager - Inbound, Thomas Cook) - Probably I will be labouring an old subject. The idea of parochialism is only good if it does not create a 'bun fight'. Regrettably, especially amongst the State tourist bureaux overseas, the approach appears to be not: 'Let us work together' but rather: 'I will promote my little section'. There has developed a 'bun fight' that is not only obvious to the people here but also to the industry overseas. In that respect parochialism is bad. It is bad unless people are promoting together rather than individually. I would much prefer a lot of these people, especially State tourist bureaux, to use their money to get their people on the right track.

And from Northern Ireland Assembly, Official Report of Debates, issue 4 (1982):

Mr Edgar Graham: I promise not to delay the House very much longer in this matter because the matter has already been discussed up and down on the Second Reading debate as it were an on this Committee Stage debate. A number of matters of law have been raised by hon Members, and although in the Procedure Committee we have a quare old legal bun-fight already and I think we are going to have perhaps a good legal bun-fight here over this Standing Order there may well be a quare old legal bun-fight after these proceedings over this. I think that since the hon Member for East Belfast (Mr Napier) has raised the ghost or prospect of a High Court action over this, the House should be aware of what may be an anomaly in the legislation establishing this Assembly in that although, as the hon Member for North Belfast (Mr Maguire) has said, we are a creature of statute, the privileges and immunities of the House of Commons extend to this Assembly.

None of these later instances seem to be referring to tea parties—at least not pleasant ones. But almost certainly the later meaning derives from the earlier "tea-party" meaning, and seems to entail a social gathering gone wrong.

The sense of "bun fight" as a specifically legal or procedural tiff finds support in Export Today, volume 11 (1995) [combined snippets]:

In what has been dubbed "a sizzling bun fight," the U.S. hamburger chain McDonald's is appealing a South African court decision in a trademark infringement fight with a local company that is using the McDonald's name.

In October, a Pretoria court ruled against McDonald's, saying the U.S. company abandoned its trademark by not opening any restaurants during the apartheid era. The court awarded the trademark to the local operator, who had been using the name in recent years.

From Aboriginal Law Journal (1995) [combined snippets]:

It becomes apparent from the forced changes in colonial policy that the colonial powers were at their wit's end about what to do with the Aborigines. It was a despairing colonial administration, Reynolds points out, which sought the services of George Augustus Robertson, who in turn made promises to the Aborigines. Hence, Reynolds points out, the petition represented more than a bun-fight between white overseers - it referred to a broken promise on matters of substance.

And from Barbara Farbey, David Targett & Frank Land, Hard Money, Soft Outcomes: Evaluating and Managing the IT Investment (1995):

And worse still when we invoked penalty clauses, the section in the contract that talked about the penalty clauses was so ambiguously written that we had a bun fight for nearly 6 months over it. It wasn't the question of how much (it turned out to be something like 30,000, which over a multi-million contract was pretty small) but it was the bun fight that was the problem, the fact that they (the vendor) didn't just walk in on the following Monday and say 'we screwed up last week, we were down for three days, and according to the contract this is what you are owed'.

Later instances of the term suggest that conflicts may be distinguishable into "legal bun fights" and "political bun fights." But whatever the antagonistic possibilities of bun fight in its modern slang senses, the traditional slang sense persists as well. From Rhys Bowen, A Royal Pain (2008):

"Darling what a lovely surprise. I had no idea you'd be part of this bun fight.”

“Belinda, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“Darling, have you ever known me to turn down a free meal? I told you I was going to the country. One simply can't stay in London when the weather turns warm.”


Conclusions

A bun fight can mean simply a tea party—as it has for more than a century. Or (in more-recent decades) it can mean a dispute over social proprieties, legal rights, or political power. One common characteristic of these various meanings is the suggestion that the gathering goes on rather longer than the participants might wish.

The earliest of the bun-related terms for tea party may be bun-worry; at any rate it is the earliest such term to appear in a Google Books search. From "Sketches of Irish Life," in Once a Week (November 16, 1872, and December 7, 1872):

I had gone into the country for a day's shooting, and also for the purpose of gracing with my presence a soiree of bun-worry which was to come off at a school-room not far from my friend's house.

...

"Boys," said the latter gentleman, as he pushed his last empty cup from him with a satisfied air—"boys, it stracks me we'll make a scatterment among the victuals at the bun-worry the night."

"I think it," was Bill's sage reply.

Unquestionably, people invited to tea have been worrying, feasting, struggling, beating, and fighting with buns for a very long time.

  • Bun feast and muffin fight both sound suspiciously like clever(ish) euphemisms for gay sex, one for each of the two main genders. That's rather brilliant in its own very bizarre way. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Oct 4 '16 at 17:36
  • My father (English, b. 1907) used 'bun-fight' or occasionally 'bun-struggle' to refer to a social event with refreshments, held in a public place such as a church hall. I associate the idea with people crowding round a table to get at the food. – Kate Bunting Dec 17 '16 at 10:34

Early uses of 'bun-fight' include a highly colloquial, not to mention jocular, article titled "Chips by a Sandalwood Cutter. At the Opening of Parliment", found in The Herald out of Freemantle, Western Australia, from 10 Aug 1872:

bunfight example 1872

The sense intended is not clear; however, the use without defining context suggests the writer might expect readers in Western Australia in 1872 would understand the term without further explanation. Further, what I make of the sense used is not a 'tea party'.

The sense of the next instance I was able to locate (from the Wrexham and Denbighshire Advertiser and Cheshire Shropshire and North Wales Register, 23 Aug 1873) seems quite plain—even literal:

The hour appointed for the commencement of the proceedings was three o'clock, and shortly before that time about 1,200 children belonging to Pontblyddyn, Hope, and Tryddyn National Schools, the districts over which Major Roper's property extends, arrived in the park at Plas Teg, headed by the band of the Royal Flintshire Militia, and marched in procession in front of the hall, a fine old grey stone building in the Elizabethan style of architecture. The children were accompanied by the Rev. J. Williams. Rev. D. Jones, Rev. Samuel Evans, and Rev. J. Davies, clergymen connected with the townships already mentioned. It was intended to have presented the address of the friends and tenants first, but owing to the arrival of Major Roper and his lady having been unavoidably delayed, it was determined to begin the sports at once. The children having been entertained to tea and bunloaf in three large marquees which had been erected in the park, the sports, which included flat races, and a treacle bun fight, were commenced in the presence of about 2,900 persons, .... The weather was exceedingly fine, and the sports ... were much enjoyed, especially the donkey races and the treacle bun fight. The rejoicings concluded with a dance at a late hour.

Here the sense is not in doubt, and the use refers to a sporting event at a large community festival where (1200!) children were superintended by local clergymen.

Next comes a use, again, as was the 1872 Western Australia instance, associated with church gatherings for children in the local community:

Good Friday from a Passion Week point of view is full of hallowed memories and historic Interest. As a youngster, I was always favourably impressed with the day, owing to the privilege afforded me of impairing my digestion with an unlimited supply of "hot cross" buns. No other kind of bun would have been considered a privilege to masticate, and if the "cross" wasn't plainly marked on the genuine article the enjoyment of "getting outside it" was marred by distrust born of suspicion that the baker's boy had perpetrated a swindle on the family. In those days all good little boys like myself had to follow up the "bun fight" by parading at Church, there to reflect on the sin of greediness, the hateful results of which frequently developed internal pains, the bitter memories of which still haunt me. In these degenerate days, however, as the Frenchman observes, "Nous avons changé tout cela". The hot cross bun still survives, so also does the tabernacle, but in neither instance does enthusiasm lead one to overdo the thing. We partake sparingly of the one, and in nine cases out of ten forget all about the other.

"Cycling Notes" by Pneumatic, South Wales Daily News, 15 Apr 1895

In this instance, explicit connection is made between a 'bun fight' and hot cross buns, as well as the further connection between hot cross buns and Good Friday religious ceremonies.

On the basis of these attestations, and observing also that two of the early attestations documented by Sven in another answer mention a "Sunday-school bun-fight" (1901 and 1905), I am inclined to the conclusion that

  1. 'bun-fight' was originally a reference to church-related children's activities marked by more-or-less literal 'bun fights' resembling contemporary schoolchildren's lunchroom 'food fights', that is, the original bun fights from which the term is derived involved the throwing of food, specifically hot cross buns or other sweet buns (the latter, however, as remarked by Pneumatic, not being the "genuine article");
  2. modern uses of the term 'bun-fight' continue to reflect its original reference to children's, or merely childish, behavior;
  3. the time period in which the term 'bun-fight' originated was closer to, if not squarely in, the middle of the 19th rather than the late 19th century.

Research Note

Two of the three attestations in this answer were drawn from what is for me a newly discovered trove of valuable historical material, in the form of a large, free collection of Welsh newspapers online. Until I discovered Welsh Newspapers Online, extensive material for Great Britain in the semi-informal register of the popular press, similar to that made available by Elephind for Australia, the US and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, was conspicuous by reason of its absence.

  • Excellent answer—and the "treacle bun fight" in the 1873 example amazes me. The notion of wasting good food in an authorized food fight in 1873 seems so uncharacteristic of the time. I wonder if the "buns" were actually something sticky but inedible that acquired their name by association with actual sticky buns. Anyway, it's a fascinating example. And thanks for pointing out the Welsh Newspapers Online database. You may also be aware of the New Zealand National Library's “PapersPast Collection.” Unfortunately, ... – Sven Yargs Oct 4 '16 at 17:53
  • ...the British Newspaper Archive, which undoubtedly has some very worthwhile content, requires a subscription, though I understand that you can use it three times at no cost if you register at the site. (Actually, you may have pointed these resources out in a previous answer on this site. If so, my apologies for not remembering where I found out about them.) – Sven Yargs Oct 4 '16 at 17:56
  • @SvenYargs, thanks, and especially for the links, although Elephind does aggregate PapersPast, and I shy in poverty away from fee-based resources. I'm still looking for extensive free British aggregations, and don't know how I overlooked the Welsh resource for so long. My answer is more of a supplement to yours than anything, although I'm sure my speculation about the origin of the 'bun-fight' phrase, etc., is not supplemental but rather divergent, and so did not make the grand assertion (of being supplemental) in the answer itself. – JEL Oct 5 '16 at 5:42
  • Wikipedia has a huge list of mixed free and for-a-fee online newspaper archives, which includes the National Library of Wales website you found. But the sheer number of archives is daunting, and relatively few of them seem designed for general word or phrase searches across multiple periodicals. Still, I'm sure there are some gems in there, if only I had the patience to find them. – Sven Yargs Oct 5 '16 at 6:18

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