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Why do we say ‘Gordon Bennett’?

How would you feel if your name was used as an exclamation or swear word? Well, that is Gordon Bennett's legacy, but do we know who he was?

A portrait of James Gordon Bennett, Jr (1841–1918), by Alexis Joseph Perignon, 1867. (Photo by The New York Historical Society/Getty Images)
Published: January 30, 2017 at 11:20 am
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There are three contenders, although there is some debate that the phrase may have been born as a mangled way of saying ‘God Almighty’ or something similar. It would be a handy, euphemistic way of cursing without the blasphemy.


The first man under consideration is Henry Gordon Bennett, a decorated Australian general who served in both World Wars. He is most remembered for his actions when Singapore was surrendered to the Japanese in 1942. He escaped while his men were left to become prisoners of war so it is easy to see why his name would be spat out in anger.

The second possibility is James Gordon Bennett, a ground-breaking journalist who, in 1835, founded the New York Herald. But there is no concrete evidence that his name became synonymous with surprise or anger. His son James Gordon Bennett Junior, however, could hold that dubious honour.

Having inherited a multi-million dollar estate, Junior – the ultimate playboy – enjoyed a lavish, hedonistic lifestyle of cars, boats and planes and spent buckets of money sponsoring races of all kinds of vehicles, all titled the Gordon Bennett Cup. He followed his father into the newspaper business – it was he who funded Henry Morton Stanley’s expedition to Africa in search of Dr Livingstone – but he made also headlines with his own shenanigans.

In 1877, his engagement with socialite Caroline May was apparently broken off after he mistook the fireplace at his future in-law’s house as a toilet and urinated in view of all the assorted guests. As his antics were reported regularly in the news, his name became associated with feelings of shock or outrage. If ‘Gordon Bennett’ does originate with a man, Junior is the leading candidate.

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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine


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