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Did you see the nit nurse before 1985? If you did, your language needs you!

Category: Factual & Arts TV

Date: 07.10.2005
Printable version

The BBC and Oxford English Dictionary are continuing their search for evidence proving the earliest usage of words, to form part of Balderdash & Piffle, a major new series for BBC TWO.


The Wordhunt appeal, launched in June this year, has already elicited a fantastic response from the public.


Thanks to a wordhunter who sent in a clipping from the New York Times, the earliest date for the phrase 'bomber jacket' has been pushed back from 1973 to 1946.


But other mysteries remain: despite the best efforts of the British public, the Wordhunt team still needs help with ten key words.


For example, nit nurse is still a mystery - because, while many people remember being scrutinised before 1985, there is currently no documentary evidence to prove it!


Other words such as mackem, with a strong regional flavour, have also prompted a huge response, but still no proof.


Word evidence submitted by the public could become part of history and be included forever in the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as featuring in the forthcoming BBC TWO series Balderdash & Piffle, which explores word origins and mysteries.


The ten words/phrases are:


Back to square one

Full monty



Nit nurse





Something for the weekend


Archie Baron from the Wordhunt team says: "The public have come forward with evidence to establish more accurate histories surrounding the origins of nearly half the words we originally asked for.


"We've had thousands of correspondents, hundreds of theories and dozens of clippings and jottings sent in as proof. Now we want to focus on ten words and phrases. The crucial evidence is likely to be in someone's attic or kitchen drawer, their childhood diaries or employer's in-house mag."


To submit evidence, visit


More information on the ten words.


Back to square one (1960) Why do we say back to square one? Is it to do with radio football commentary from the Twenties and Thirties? If it is, why doesn't it appear in the dictionary until 1960?


Does it come from board games like Snakes and Ladders? Do you have an old game which includes the instructions to go 'Back To Square One' from earlier? (Board game enthusiasts)


Full Monty (1985) We asked for the full monty on the full monty, and wordhunters far and wide have told us that the phrase is linked to the tailor Montague Burton.


Can you help pin down the evidence? Did you work for Burton after the war? Did you stroll into Burton's and request the full monty before 1985? Burton's home town was Leeds, so the trail might lead there.


But others have told us it is connected to Monty and his Desert Rats - veterans might be able to prove or disprove the theory. (Leeds)


Codswallop (1963) Codswallop sounds as old as the English countryside. But it's unknown before 1963. Can you help prove a connection to Victorian fizzy drinks guru Hiram Codd, or can you prove a better theory? (Barnsley and Yorkshire generally)


Balti (1984) Are you one of Britain's original curry kings or queens? If so, did you cook or serve Britain or the world's first balti - or do you know who did? Knocking around at the back of the kitchen drawer, do you have an old takeaway menu with a balti on it from before 1984? (Birmingham)


Nit nurse (1985) Line up school nurses; scratch your heads and think. Were you dubbed the nit nurse before 1985? You've sent in your memories of the 'nit nurse' by the sackload, but the dated evidence needed to update the dictionary is proving elusive. Perhaps your school diaries or letters speak fondly of the 'nit nurse'?


Boffin (1941) Can any RAF veterans tell us how and why boffins first got their name during the Second World War? (War veterans or enthusiasts)


Ska (1964) Do you know where 'ska' music got its name from? Was it from scat or skavoovie? Why is the earliest documentary evidence from 1964, when most people remember ska from earlier than that?


Mackem (1991) Howay natives of Sunderland! Were you a mackem before 1991? Your feedback so far has enlightened us on the long and colourful history of the word, but can you provide any dateable evidence of the word from before 1991? (Sunderland)


Mullet (1994) Did you sport a mullet and call it that before the 1994 Beastie Boys song, Mullet Head?


Something for the weekend (1990) Your anecdotal evidence places this phrase much earlier, within the barbers' shops of the Fifties, with many claiming that this just wasn't the sort of phrase that appears in print. Can you prove otherwise?


Notes to Editors


Please include the information required for people to submit their information to the Wordhunt project. They can visit or email


Further details about the TV programme, Balderdash & Piffle, will be presented at the BBC TWO Winter/Spring launch in November 2005.


The Oxford English Dictionary is published by Oxford University Press and is the accepted authority on the evolution of the English language over the last millennium.


It is an unsurpassed guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of 600,000 words, both present and past. It traces the usage of words through 2.5 million quotations from a wide range of international English language sources, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books.


The OED covers words from across the English-speaking world, from North America to South Africa, from Australia and New Zealand to the Caribbean. It also offers the best in etymological analysis and in listing of variant spellings, and it shows pronunciation using the International Phonetic Alphabet. The Second Edition of the OED is available as a 20-volume print edition, on CD-ROM, and now also online at


Balderdash and Piffle, the accompanying BBC book by Alex Games published on 5 January 2006, will lift the lid on a whole range of words and phrases used in the English language, from 'gone ballistic' which comes from the 18th century's fascination with projectile science, to our favourite slang words such as minghawk (Glasgow) and mong (Exeter).


Alex explores phrases from Shakespeare that even the non-literary amongst us use frequently, like 'what the dickens' (Merry Wives of Windsor) and 'all Greek to me' (Julius Caesar), and investigates the origins of swear words, sporting phrases and words from foreign lands. It is a book for anyone who is interested in speaking, reading, writing or hearing the English language.




The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Category: Factual & Arts TV

Date: 07.10.2005
Printable version


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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