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.

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