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Last updated at 12:10 GMT, Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Bottle and Bottler

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John Ayto discusses a modern use of the words 'bottle' and 'bottler'.

Some bottles

Bottle and Bottler

'Brown the Bottler' the placards said. Gordon Brown had recently taken over as prime minister of Britain in 2007, and he'd been thinking of holding a general election, to confirm his leadership. Then he suddenly seems to have been struck by terrible doubts over whether he'd win, so he decided not to have an election after all. His enemies accused him of being scared, of, to use a different metaphor, chickening out. That's what 'bottler' means in British slang: a person who lacks the courage to go through with something.

But why? It all goes back to a rather strange use of 'bottle' to mean 'bravery' or 'nerve', which has been around for nearly a century now. So if someone has lost their bottle, they've lost their nerve, they're afraid. The verb 'to bottle' soon followed: you could 'bottle out of' something, or simply 'bottle it', if you didn't have the guts to do it. And so we got 'bottler'.

But the original question why remains. There's an old slang expression 'no bottle' meaning 'no good' which may have something to do with it, and it's often claimed that it's linked with Cockney rhyming slang 'bottle and glass'. That stands for 'arse', and various not entirely convincing attempts have been made to connect that with the idea of courage.

And a word of warning: in Australia, 'bottler' means 'someone or something excellent' (as in "That try he scored was a real bottler"). A slippery thing is slang.

This is the last programme in this series of Keep Your English up to date. A new series called The English We Speak will be coming soon.

About John Ayto

John Ayto

John Ayto is a lexicographer and a writer on words and language. He began his dictionary career as one of the editors of the first edition of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and over the past twenty years he has produced a range of his own books on the history and use of words, including the Bloomsbury Dictionary of Word Origins, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang and Twentieth-Century Words, a survey of the new words that came into the English language during the twentieth century. He edited the 17th edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and he has broadcast extensively on lexical matters.