Q: I watch the PBS series Midsomer Murders. In a recent episode, a character appears who sometimes exclaims, “Steady, the Buffs” and “Stiffen the Prussian Guard.” I tried to find their source, with little luck. They sound like something in a novel about the Napoleonic Wars, or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. What do you know about them?
A: The first of those expressions originated in the British military and the second probably did, though its origins are a lot more obscure.
Later, as you’ve discovered, they found their way into civilian usage, minus their military flavor.
We’ll examine the less obscure one first. “Steady, the Buffs!” means “Keep calm!” or “Steady on, boys!” and can be traced to the late 19th century.
The “Buffs” in the phrase is a reference to a famous British Army unit, the Third Regiment of Foot. The regiment, founded in 1572, was nicknamed “the Buffs” in the early 18th century because of the colors of its uniforms.
“The Buffs” was officially made part of the regiment’s name by royal warrant in the 1750s, according to several histories we consulted. (It’s now the East Kent Regiment.)
The earliest published use of “Steady, the Buffs!” we’ve found is from a history of the regiment that appeared in the journal Notes and Queries in 1876.
First, the writer quotes an earlier history, published in 1836, which says: “The men’s coats were lined and faced with buff; they also wore buff waistcoats, buff breeches, and buff stockings, and were emphatically styled ‘The Buffs.’ ”
The writer then goes on to add: “ ‘Steady, The Buffs,’ a not unfamiliar caution to many an English soldier.”
The source of that “not unfamiliar caution” is hard to pin down.
By some accounts, an adjutant shouted the expression to a battalion of the Buffs while it was on parade in Malta in 1858.
By other accounts, an officer cried, “Steady, The Buffs!” as the regiment was going into battle abroad. We haven’t been able to confirm either story.
Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases calls it an expression “of self admonition or self-adjuration or self-encouragement” that originated in the military. Its origin? Partridge says only that it comes “from an incident in the history of the East Kent Regiment.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says the expression is a reference to the army regiment and means “hold on! keep calm! be careful!” No origin is given.
However it originated, the expression followed the regiment back home to Britain and became a popular catchphrase.
Oxford’s earliest example is from Rudyard Kipling’s The Story of the Gadsbys (1888), but we’ve found a civilian usage that’s at least two years older.
An angler named Samuel Harwood used it in his “Thames Reminiscences,” which appeared in an April 1886 issue of Fishing, a journal published in London:
“He turned off to the left, and I followed him as well as I could. Squish—squash! This was a sort of exercise in which I did not excel. Oh, why had I not brought my goloshes? But steady, the Buffs, what had become of my leg! Down a drain, or something, by all that was ludricrous. I pulled it out as fast as I could, but only to find I was minus a shoe.”
We also found this example, from an October 1899 issue of the Sketch: “ ‘Good the Guards!’ is becoming a military catchword, just as ‘Steady the Buffs’ and half-a-dozen other short sentences of the kind are.”
A similar but unrelated expression, “stand buff,” means “to stand firm, not to flinch; to endure,” according to the OED.
Oxford’s earliest published example of “stand buff” comes from Samuel Butler’s poem Hudibras’s Epitaph, written sometime before 1679: “For the good old cause stood buff / ’Gainst many a bitter kick and cuff.”
The “buff” in this phrase is an old noun, dating back to the 1400s, meaning “a blow, stroke, buffet,” the OED says. “Buff” and “counterbuff,” the dictionary adds, “seem to have been technical terms in fencing or pugilism.”
Now, let’s look at the more obscure of the two expressions you asked about—“Stiffen the Prussian Guard (or Guards).”
Other than a brief mention here or there on an Internet discussion group, sightings of this expression are rare.
We found an example in White City (2007), a memoir by the British writer Donald James Wheal of his childhood in World War II-era London.
In this passage, Wheal’s father is speaking: “ ‘Stiffen the Prussian Guards!’ he exploded—his invariable comment at moments of high drama. ‘They’ve given you a scholarship!’ ”
A British review of Wheal’s book, from a 2007 issue of the Telegraph, says that “he writes affectionately of both his background and his parents, particularly his plumber-cum-bookie dad whose only two weaknesses were shouting ‘Stiffen the Prussian Guards!’ at every opportunity and wanting the best for his son.”
What does the phrase mean? Our best guess is that Wheal’s father was using an expression from an earlier era, World War I, and that it originally meant something like “Kill the Germans!”
In turn-of-the-century slang, to “stiffen” was to kill or murder—that is, to make a corpse of—according to the OED and Green’s Dictionary of Slang.
Green’s has examples of this use of “stiffen” (as in “Stiffen the brute!”) dating from the 1890s. The OED has a single example, from an 1888 issue of the Daily News in London: “Mr. Burgess threatened to blow my brains out and to ‘stiffen’ me.”
The rest of the phrase is probably a reference to an elite military unit in Prussia and later Germany from the mid-1700s to the early 1900s.
So in the mouth of a British soldier, “Stiffen the Prussian Guard (or Guards)!” would have been a rousing call to arms.
Donald James Wheal’s parents courted in the 1920s and married in the ’30s, so his father would have remembered World War I and the slang that was in the air back then.
However, he was probably using the expression loosely as an expression of surprise or amazement, much like “I’ll be damned!” or “Blow me down!” or “I’ll be a son of a gun!”