Bog Standard

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Bog Standard : Phrases


The basic unrefined article.


First recorded in the early 1980s, although there are numerous hearsay reports of its colloquial use in the UK before then. Given that it is quite an colourful-sounding phrase and that it is quite recent, it is surprising that a definitive origin can't be found. Most of the early citations - and there aren't many of those - come from the technical world; either computing or engineering. The earliest so far found is from the August 1983 edition of Australian Personal Computer:

"Decryption of a 30-byte cipher block takes about five minutes, using a bog-standard Z80 running at under 2 Mhz clock rate."

The lack of early citations indicate that the phrase toddled along as slang for some time before anyone took much notice of it. Its use by Alistair Campbell, who was until 2003 Tony Blair's Director of Communications and Strategy, brought it to the public attention in the UK. In Feb. 2001, Campbell, who has a reputation as a confrontational and macho speaker, said:

"The day of the bog-standard comprehensive school is over."

Comprehensives are UK mixed-ability secondary schools. The comment was clearly intended to paint the schools in a poor light and indicate the New Labour administration's negative opinion of them.

But, why 'bog standard'? It may be the association with the word bog, which has long been used in the UK to mean toilet.

The other most often-repeated theory of the derivation is that it is a mispronunciation of 'box standard', the term referring to unmodified goods coming straight from the box. This also was first recorded in 1983, but is likely to have been around in everyday speech for some years prior to that. In the February 1983 edition of Computerworld magazine we have a comment from Sir Clive Sinclair, the inventor and entrepreneur:

"We cannot foresee a day when a computer becomes just a standard box. There will be box-standard machines along the road, but we do not simply have to make those. There will always be something fresh waiting to be done."

Again, as with 'bog standard' there are few early citations. Here's another from Richard Cooke's 1991 book Paintball: The Combat Adventure Sport:

"An inspection of the hammer reveals one of the most hi-tech items currently fitted to a box standard weapon."

We may find evidence to link 'bog standard' to some specific event or process, but somehow I doubt it. Like the American phrase 'brown bag', it seems that 'bog standard' is just an evocative-sounding phrase meaning basic/ordinary/unrefined.

We may not be able to pin down that phrase's origin. What we can do is refute a story that was broadcast in the BBC's quiz show QI in Nov. 2005. The researchers for the show put into the mouth of the normally erudite and knowledgeable Stephen Fry the notion that early train sets were labelled 'box standard' and 'box deluxe'. This he followed up with two ideas - one that 'bog standard' comes from 'box standard' - reasonable enough but, as we have seen, unproven. Secondly, that the dog's bollocks comes from 'box deluxe'. That's pure invention. Even if they could come up with such a box label, and that's noticeably lacking, how is that linguistic jump supposed to have occurred, and why the 100-year gap between the train sets and the phrase?

Fry did at least seem to have less than 100% faith in the story and qualified it with "I am reliably informed that...".

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