‘Why didn’t they call it Very British Railways?’ asked my husband. Unwittingly (as in most of his remarks), he had put his finger on something odd about the new name for the nationalised rail structure, Great British Railways.
It follows the model of Great British Bake Off. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary noticed the tendency in a quotation from a magazine published in 2006: ‘The Great British queuer is a bit of a myth.’ In that construction a reference to Great Britain is ‘used punningly, as though great rather than Great British were the modifier’.
In the 19th century, the same joke was deployed in the phrase Great British Public. It had the ironic implication that the public was not so great. Similarly, the Great British Summer suggests rain. All this being the case, Great British Railways seems a strange choice for an enterprise hoping to prosper.
As for railways, the Great Western Railway had its name established by Act of Parliament in 1835. At the Bill’s report stage, Lord Kenyon, in a ten-minute speech opposing it, used the word great frequently and no doubt unconsciously: great importance, great deal (twice), great difference, great number.
But even then some material senses of the word were becoming obsolescent. Big toe had come into use in the late 17th century and was gradually ousting great toe. Great Britain, a purely descriptive geographical label began to sound like a term of praise.
It is true that great as an adjective of approval (‘That’s great!’) arrived in the 19th century from America, where the ambition has endured of writing the Great American Novel. In Britain, by 1900, the New English Dictionary (as the OED was still called) remarked on the negative connotation of great in a physical sense: ‘“I found a large table in my room,” would simply state a fact, but if great were used, the sentence would indicate annoyance, amusement or surprise.’
Nowadays some people put on a Mummersetshire accent to use the dialect form gurt. Perhaps, in the western region, signs should be going up for Gurt British Railways.
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