I’m going back to dear Old Blighty soon for my annual visit home. I always assumed (although I’m not sure why) that Blighty had something to do with the great Irish potato blight of the mid-19th century And being a British ex-pat, I’m someone who uses this affectionate term for my homeland frequently, without ever knowing where or how it originated. Then one of my American friends asked … Who knew that it actually comes from an Arabic word, by way of British India and the trenches of wartime France?
According to the OED, Blighty is British slang for Britain or England, or home. Used originally by soldiers during the First World War, it’s thought to have been uttered first on French battlefields some time in 1915. The word’s secondary meaning, which obviously developed out of the British soldiers’ yearning for their beloved Blighty, is “a wound securing return home” — ie. a wartime injury not mortal but sufficiently serious to merit being shipped back to Britain (and hence, sadly, often self-inflicted).
Blighty is a relic of British colonialism — specifically, British India: it derives from the Hindustani word vilayati (pronounced “bil-AH-ti” in many Indian dialects and languages) meaning “foreign”, which in turn comes from the Arabic/Urdu word wilayat, meaning “kingdom”, “state”, “ministry” or “province”.
In their 1886 dictionary, Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, Sir Henry Yule and Arthur C. Burnell explained how vilayati was adopted by the Anglo-Indians as a name for exotic foreign items, especially those brought to India by the British, such as the tomato (“vilayati baingan”, which translates as “foreign aubergine”) and soda-water (“vilayati pani”, or “foreign water”).
Fast forward about three decades, and Blighty was the British soldiers’ own corruption of the Anglo-Indian vilayati. Creeping into the vernacular of wartime England, it popped up regularly in songs — “There’s a ship that’s bound for Blighty”, “We wish we were in Blighty”, and “Take me back to dear old Blighty”, poetry, and other popular culture of the time. It endures today as an affectionate term used by British expats referring nostalgically to their homeland — now more commonly used with “Old” in front.
He dropped, — – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
— Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
“I’ll do ’em in,” he whined,
“If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.”
A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees;
his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren’t dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him;
nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; — – stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”
— Wilfred Owen