Not one but two newspaper publishers had their names yesterday in the Guardian Quick Crossword. It included both the quick and the dead – the deceased all but forgotten but enjoying a second life as a phrase. Not as part of a phrase like “Jack Robinson” but a complete phrase: “Gordon Bennett”. There was also an Australian general named Gordon Bennett who escaped from Singapore when it fell to the Japanese during the Second World War, but “Gordon Bennett” the phrase predates Gordon Bennett the general, we are told, and was inspired by a colourful American newspaper publisher.
The most famous media mogul in the world today, of course, is Rupert Murdoch, whose name filled up the top of the Guardian Quick Crossword yesterday. The clue was right there in 1 Across: Media mogul (6,7). I did not expect the Guardian crossword to start with the name of a rival newspaper’s owner, so I toyed with words like “press baron”, but they did not have the requisite number of letters, so the answer had to be “Rupert Murdoch”.
The clue set for 24 Across was trickier: Expression of surprise or annoyance – not bond regent) (anag, 6,7). Having filled in the connecting squares, I knew the word had to begin with a “G”, the third letter had to be an “R”, the fifth an “O”, the seventh a “B”, the ninth an “N”, the 11th an “E” and the last letter a “T” (see the crossword). And since the answer had to be a compound word or a phrase made up of a six-letter word followed by a seven-letter word, the only thing I could think of was a name: Gordon Bennett. But who was Gordon Bennett? And why should that be an expression of surprise or annoyance?
Gordon Bennett was the publisher of the New York Herald who led a colourful life as a playboy. Michael Quinion on World Wide Words writes:
It’s getting passé now, but it was common in the last decades of the twentieth century to hear British speakers say Gordon Bennett! when they wished to express surprise, incredulity, or exasperation. “Gordon Bennett — he couldn’t even keep himself sane, let alone anyone else,” as a character says in Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor. The expression has long puzzled lexicographers.
There was a real person, named in full James Gordon Bennett. Confusingly, there were two of them, father and son. Bennett the elder was born in Scotland in 1795, emigrated to the US, became a journalist, founded the New York Herald in 1835…
His son of the same name (known as Gordon Bennett to distinguish him from his father) was also a proficient journalist (he sent Stanley to Africa to seek out Livingstone) but preferred the good life, mostly in London and Paris. He spent much of the fortune accumulated by him and his father in promoting air and road racing in England and France and generally being the playboy…
So it’s not surprising that his name become widely known in Europe, well enough that he should have become a byword, helped by his eccentric and boorish ways (he is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records under “Greatest Engagement Faux Pas” for having his engagement to Caroline May broken off in 1877 after he arrived late and drunk at the May family’s New York mansion and urinated in the living room fireplace in front of his hosts).
The curious thing is that though his high-living European heyday was in the first decade of the twentieth century, the exclamation only began to appear in print much later. Until a find by the BBC television programme Balderdash & Piffle in 2007, the earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary was in a cartoon caption dated 1983. It is now known to have appeared in a 1937 novel, You’re in the Racket, Too, written by a little-known London-based writer, James Curtis: “Gordon Bennett. He wasn’t half tired.” Even then, the expression must have been lurking in the spoken language for at least two decades (Bennett died in 1918) before it was put down on paper.
His strong European connections explain why the exclamation Gordon Bennett should be known in Britain but not in the country of his birth. Though Gordon Bennett is a satisfactory exclamation in its own right, its popularity was surely helped along because it echoed such mild oaths as God help us or Gor blimey…
There was also an Australian general of the same name, who controversially left Singapore after the Japanese reached it in 1942, abandoning his men. Some writers have in the past wondered whether this might have been the real source of the exclamation, but the discovery of the 1937 citation rules it out, though it might be that the general’s notoriety gave a fresh impetus to the expletive in Australia.