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shameless pleading

Steady the Buffs

It was the late Lord Wobbly’s favourite colour.

Dear Word Detective: I can´t find the meaning of the phrase “steady the Buffs.” It occurs in the play “An Inspector Call” by J.B. Priestley, but I’ve looked it up in many reference books and it was a waste of time. If you can find the meaning for me, I would appreciate it very much. — Mabel Susana Galinanes, Argentina.

buffs08.pngA waste of time? Oh, I beg to differ. Searching through reference books may not produce the answer to your particular question, but one almost always learns something in the process, even if it’s only the specific gravity of tuna salad or how to hypnotize a wildebeest. And you never know when you may need to know how to tie a half-over whiptailed hitch knot. Granted, that’s not very likely since I just made that up and can barely tie my own shoes. But I do know how to start a stalled car using only a credit card and a cell phone.

I have never read Mr. Priestley’s play, but from summaries I gather it is set in 1912 (although it was written in 1945) at an upper-class family dinner interrupted by the visit of a inspector (perhaps from the police; perhaps, he said ominously, not) inquiring about the death of a local working-class girl. The use of the phrase “steady the Buffs” in the play is apparently one of many not-very-subtle signals that these are indeed prosperous folk.

“Steady the Buffs” is a catchphrase meaning “stay calm, be careful, and persevere,” an expression of encouragement offered to someone in trying circumstances. The phrase itself dates back at least to the late 19th century, when it was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his short story collection “Soldiers Three.” “Steady” in the phrase is the well-known nautical command, meaning “steer steady,” i.e., maintain the current course and speed.

The “Buffs” takes a bit more explaining. It’s capitalized in the phrase because “the Buffs” is the nickname of the East Kent Regiment of the British Army, a famous unit that dates back to the 16th century. The regiment’s nickname refers to their uniform jackets in the 19th century, which sported facings (trim on the collars, cuffs, etc.) of a “buff,” or light yellowish-tan, color. “Buff” as the name of a color comes from the tanned hides of buffalo (the Asian sort, not the American bison) used as outerwear; “buff” meaning “enthusiast” comes from “fire buffs” in 19th century America, volunteer firefighters (or just wannabe firefighters) who wore such coats to conflagrations.

The exact origin and logic of the phrase “steady the Buffs” is a bit unclear, although given the illustrious history of the unit there is no lack of stories set in pitched battle against an implacable foe in which a commander encouraged his men with the phrase. After Kipling popularized it, it became a common way to say “carry on and don’t panic,” especially among the upper classes.

7 comments to Steady the Buffs

  • A Sweet

    The phrase Steady, The Buffs was not originally coined on the battle field but the parade ground. When the 3rd of Foot were sharing barracks with the 21st Fusiliers. One of the 3rds’ NCOs would urge the Buffs to be steady on the parade ground as the 21st were watching them. Something that amused the Fusiliers, so they took to shouting it at the 3rd whenever they met from then on. This then spread to be called out whenever the 3rd marched past.

  • Stella

    I’ve also looked up the expression in a few Dictionaries, without much success, but what I think,is, that in the context of the play, this expression may have another connotation: Sheila has just become engaged and her fiancee has given her a diamond ring, which apparently, is very bright. Perhaps the expression may take the other meaning of buff, which is shiny, and Eric, Sheila’s brother, might be referring to the way the ring shines, its rays should be steadied… perhaps.
    What do you think?
    Looking forward to your feedback,
    Stella

  • Tony

    In the interwar years of boredom, young soldiers wanting a bit of excitement on a Saturday evening would shout, if they saw any Guardsmen in tne same pub or canteen,”Forward the Buffs and steady the Buffs ! and let the gentlemen of the Guards take a place of safety at the REAR!”
    The resulting fight satisfied everyone. Have things really changed since then?

  • Hermes

    I think it would be like the ‘Hold your horses’ of the 1900′s. I believe that Sheila looks to be extremely excited about this ring, so his brother Eric tries to put her feet back on the ground…

  • William Harris

    The Buffs is also the nickname of a Scottish Junior Football club from Kilwinning in Ayrshire. Those not familiar with Scottish Junior football should note that the term junior does not mean young and Ayrshire Junior Football endures a somewhat brutal reputation. The club website links parts of the previous comments thus.

    “Kilwinning Rangers or The Buffs as they are more affectionately known, were formed in 1899 as a
    Juvenile football club, playing at Blacklands Park, which they shared with the then senior side
    of Eglinton Seniors.

    “They officially became a Junior football club on the 26th of July 1902.

    “The name Buffs was first recorded on the 21st of September 1900 when the local paper, the
    Irvine Herald recorded that the so-called Buffs had had an emphatic victory over
    Kilmarnock Belgrove.

    “The name Buffs has had folklore of its own and to this day there is no definitive version of how
    the name came about! but there are a few well told theories. One is that a soldier played for
    the team who was a member of the 1st East Kents, 3rd regiment of the line an army regiment who
    were nicknamed The Buffs. The second being that the name was used at that time to describe
    anything that was “smashing” but the third and most likely theory is that the team played at
    that time in a dull yellow, or Buff strip.”

  • Moira

    Seems to me it does come from the nautical sense, as if you’re sailing straight and need to go straight and the waves are coming at you at an angle, and the color of the froth is beige, or “buff” at the top of the wave, so you fight the waves to go the direction you need to go…make sense?

  • Ash

    I agree with Hermes about the similarity to “hold your horses!”, but i think Eric’s proclamation is due to Sheila kissing Gerald.

    In this sense it seems almost a mocking statement, which would agree with Eric’s earlier comment on Sheila’s temperament.

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