Q: I was reading a description of Lord Bingham, a British judge who died two years ago, and came across this sentence: “He had no side to him at all, and he would be surprised to hear me saying these things about him.” I’m thinking this means he was not haughty or pompous, but I’d like to hear it from you!
A: In British usage, “to put on side” is to give oneself airs, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. And someone who has “no side” is modest and unpretentious.
Here, the OED adds, “side” is a slang term meaning “pretentiousness, swagger, conceit.”
Oxford’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from Joseph Hatton’s novel Cruel London (1878): “Cool, downy cove, who puts side on.” (In British slang, a “downy cove” is a knowing fellow.)
Another citation, from Joseph Hocking’s 1896 novel Fields of Fair Renown, uses “side” the same way: “They seem to have no side; they are all as jolly as may be.”
We’ve found this sense of “side” in only one American dictionary, the unabridged Webster’s Third New International, which defines it as “swaggering manner” or “arrogant behavior.”
But British dictionaries know the usage well. They define it as meaning insolence, arrogance, a proud attitude, pretentiousness, and so on.
Where does it come from? Unfortunately, the usage is “of doubtful origin,” the OED says.
But the dictionary does mention a possible connection with the game of billiards, in which “side” means the spin or “direction given to a ball by striking it at a point not directly in the middle.” (An American would say such a stroke puts “English” on the ball.)
The OED’s earliest example of this comes from Billiards (1873), a book written by Joseph Bennett and Henry Jones: “In putting on side, all that has to be done is to strike the ball on the side instead of in the middle.”
On the other hand, the OED invites readers to look at another use of “side”—an old adjective meaning haughty or proud. This usage dates to the 1600s and perhaps to the early 1500s.
Among the OED’s citations is this one from Sidney Oldall Addy’s A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighbourhood of Sheffield (1888): “I met Mrs. —— in the town, and she was very side.”