big girl’s blouse

by John Holbo on March 30, 2004

Is this thing on? OK this question is really more of a digression. The Poor Man’s proposed Bush reelection ad raised a lot of hackles … and a lot of questions. Specifically, I have long known that the English – perhaps all denizens of Great Britain and (some) former British colonies? – use the phrase ‘big girl’s blouse’ in a derogatory manner. But I don’t know how to pronounce it. I don’t know where the stress should fall. Presumably on the element that makes the item of apparel self-evidently bad. But I am afraid my moral intuitions fail me on this point. Is it bad to be a girl, or a BIG girl (hence the blouse is only bad by metonymic association); or is it bad to be a blouse, or a BIG blouse, or a big GIRL’S blouse, or a BIG GIRL’S blouse, or all of these at once? (In which case the stress would naturally fall evenly on all three elements?)

It all just goes to show that English is a tonal language. All answers should be formulated, likewise, as digressions.

UPDATE: Woah. I posted this thing after Kieran and Quiggin posted theirs, but here it is underneath. That’s time zones for you, I guess.



jholbo 03.30.04 at 3:00 am

It occurs to me there is a problem with scope as well: ‘big’ may modify ‘girl’ or ‘girl’s blouse’ (the truth-conditions will then diverge significantly). Also, ‘girl’s blouse’ is ambiguous between a blouse owned by a girl (but not necessarily designed to be worn by one) and a blouse owned by anyone (or no one) but designed to be worn by a girl.


John Isbell 03.30.04 at 4:54 am

I was going to say I’d never heard that term in 20 years in England, but does it mean a wimp? I think you can say it without “big”, if so, and that may be more common.


John Quiggin 03.30.04 at 6:01 am

I’ve always thought of this as an Australianism. I think it’s a purely euphonic adaption of the older and more obvious “Big Girl”. There was a TV series with two women comedians called Big Girls Blouse and the song “Big Girls Don’t Cry” used to be played at sporting events when a member of the visiting team questioned a referee’s ruling [I think this was eventually suppressed as being too inflammatory].


Cryptic Ned 03.30.04 at 6:11 am

I’ve never heard this in 20 years in America. That leaves…Australia!


nick 03.30.04 at 6:31 am

In my usage (northern England, which is apparently the point of origin, it’s equally stressed (as are many northernisms) and elided to something like ‘big curl’s ploughs’, the long dipthong giving the impression of a slightly weaker stress on the ‘blouse’ bit, though it’s not really the case. OED has its earliest citation with Nearest and Dearest in 1969, and it’s conceivable that it crossed to the Antipodes with the British exodus of the 50s and 60s. (It’s certainly not a native Australianism.)

I was going to say I’d never heard that term in 20 years in England, but does it mean a wimp?

Wimp, sissy, crybaby, shandy-drinker. Yep. The apparent origin is from “he’s flapping like a big girl’s blouse”, which would suggest that the image is one of a big girl’s big blouse.

I think you can say it without “big”, if so, and that may be more common.

Not in my experience, though.


Jolyon 03.30.04 at 7:24 am

I’ve always understood it to be a “girl’s blouse” that is “big”, girl’s blouse meaning poof, jesse, whatever and big adding nothing particular to it except scansion. Try saying “he’s a girl’s blouse” in the pub after a couple of pints – it doesn’t really work, does it? But “big girl’s blouse” has a satisfactory rhythm to it.

The emphasis is, to my mind, equal on all three words.

see also “big poof”, “great big jesse” etc


bryan 03.30.04 at 8:58 am

Could it be that a big girl’s blouse covers up a pair of tits of greater than normal proportion?


jamie 03.30.04 at 9:10 am

It’s really a northern English expression. It’s a kind of rule – the further north you get,m the more elaborate the insults become. In fact, you can compund them to make full sentences.

“he’s a ‘big girl’s blouse’ and he wants ‘locking up and his clothes burning’ “.

Internally, the streses on the words are all equal, but as part of a sentence each word is stressed slightly more than the surrounding words. At least as far as I’m aware. And I’m not so green as I’m cabbage looking.


Marcus Tullius Cicero 03.30.04 at 11:29 am

Would it help to read up Moore on organic wholes?


Jacob T. Levy 03.30.04 at 1:59 pm

Saw this phrase in Hellblazer once. It baffled me. Never heard it in Australia.


Jacob T. Levy 03.30.04 at 2:00 pm

Saw this phrase in Hellblazer once. It baffled me. Never heard it in Australia.


jholbo 03.30.04 at 2:21 pm

Damn, I love this enrich your word power stuff. It makes me feel – richer. Big Jesse? Shandy drinker? I had no idea.


Christian Frog 03.30.04 at 3:49 pm

You spelled “Whoa” wrong.


jholbo 03.30.04 at 4:14 pm

On the upside, I spelled ‘woah’ right.


Another Damned Medievalist 03.30.04 at 9:07 pm

The spouse from South London (the one in England) uses the phrase, as does Terry Pratchett in at least one of his lovely Discworld novels (I think it’s Soul Music). But isn’t it “Jessie” (the girl’s name once often found in Scotland) rather than Jesse, the male biblical person?


helen 03.30.04 at 9:54 pm

This phrase is widely used in Australia, as John Quiggin’s examples demonstrate. But mostly ironically, with relish at its anachronistic Englishness.


Alex Fradera 04.01.04 at 11:09 am

It’s definitely got an even stress across the words. Best employed with a tutting threat of disappointment – ‘get that down you, ye big girls blouse’ – a hovering normative tool for any situation. Transgressors would get hit with something harder – numpty, fanny, or the aforementioned jessie.
I don’t get to use it cos I’m not Northern. Shame, it’s such naunced enclave of insultdom.

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