Where does the British phrase "a complete Horlicks" come from?

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July 8 2003 4:46 PM

What Do Brits Mean by "Horlicks"?

British foreign secretary Jack Straw has been disparaging his government's prewar report on Iraqi WMDs, referring to the error-plagued document as "a complete Horlicks"—or "a total mess," as we Yanks might phrase it. What are the origins of this British put-down?

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Horlicks is a brand of "malted food drink," similar in texture and taste to the more familiar Ovaltine. The beverage was first concocted in 1873 by James and William Horlick, English brothers who'd emigrated to Chicago. They hoped their invention would become the baby food of the future, but it proved more popular among adults—especially adults in England, where the product was eventually marketed as a sleep aid. (The brand never quite became an icon in the United States, although American explorer Richard Byrd did name an Antarctic mountain range after the drink, in appreciation for the nourishment it provided his crew.)

"Horlicks" did not come to mean "mess" until the early 1980s. Urban legend holds that the company itself is responsible for the slang usage: It once aired a series of TV commercials that portrayed a stressed-out woman enduring a series of mundane catastrophes. She ends the terrible day by relaxing with a hot nip of Horlicks.

British etymologists, however, view this tale as little more than folklore—after all, the point of the ad is to endow Horlicks with positive connotations, not make it synonymous with chaos. A likelier scenario is that the term was first used in polite society as a substitution for the coarser sound-alike "bollocks"—literally "testicles," but also an interjection that's best translated as a cross between "bullshit" and "to Hell with it." The word is also part of an old cliché, "to make a bollocks of something," which means to screw it up royally. There's also a theory that the slang refers to the beverage's fickle nature. A little too much powder, or an insufficient amount of stirring, and a glass of Horlicks can become a gritty, chunk-filled disaster.

Whatever the true story, several British commentators snickered at Straw's attempt to employ the vernacular. Though considered moderately hip during the Thatcher years, "a complete Horlicks" has been out of fashion for quite some time.

Explainer thanks Michael Quinion of World Wide Words.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.

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