‘Blighty’ is another one of those Indian words that made it into English during the days of the Raj. It comes from the Hindustani vilayati, which sounds like ‘blighty’ in many regional dialects.
According to Hobson-Jobson, the classic dictionary of Anglo-Indian words, it was commonly used by Indians as a prefix denoting something European, British or exotic, eg bilayati baingan, ‘foreign aubergine’ (tomato), or bilayati pani, ‘European water’ (soda water).
The original 1886 edition of Hobson-Jobson doesn’t mention the word denoting Britain, but ‘Blighty’ passed into British army slang not long afterwards. It certainly appears in soldiers’ letters during the Boer War.
The word really caught on in the First World War. Many of the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the professional soldiers who bore the brunt of the early fighting, had served in India. It’s surely also no coincidence that ‘blighter’ was then a very popular expression meaning an irritating or distasteful person.
It’s exactly the sort of harmless vulgarity that Tommy liked. ‘Blighty’ became hugely popular, used in advertisements, music hall songs, and even as the title of a humorous magazine for servicemen. Soldiers in the trenches hoped that if they got hit, they would “catch a Blighty one” – a non-fatal wound that would get them sent home.
‘Blighty’ quickly passed out of vogue. When used during the Second World War, it was generally with mild irony.