As Shakespeare almost said: a name by any other word…
Dame Vera Lynn (who, way back in World War 2, was big up the front with our boys) is off the mother’s ruin.
Not me though. I’ll happily toss back a vera. Join me? What’s your poison? Bombay, London or bathtub?
Vera Lynn (vera only to the familiar) has long been a byword for gin in the rhyming slang lexicon. On the rocks with a slimline supersonic and a slice of lemon; that’ll do nicely. Then, I thought that after a few tinctures we might make a night of it: go on for a ruby.
Ahhh… even as the word ruby rolls off my tongue, I can almost taste tikka mingling with my table-mate’s madras, tingling in the curry-house air. There is nothing quite like a nice Ruby Murray.
Ruby, the reduced form of Ruby Murray, is a widely used, informal catchall for curry. Any curry. Generic curry. Rhyming slang curry.
Like vera before her, ruby has been absorbed into the fabric of everyday language. Ruby is a jewel in the vocabulary of many people who don’t have the faintest knowledge or care for etymology: ruby doesn’t rhyme with curry so why should anyone even think about it? It’s just a word and millennials have too much else to worry about. On the other hand, maybe you are of the number that call their curry Ruby Murray. In which case you may know (or guess) that our ruby probably is, or once was, someone’s name. But so what?
Ruby Murray was a Belfast-born singer who enjoyed major success in the 1950s. Between ‘54 and ‘59, she chalked up 11 UK Top 20 hits, including Softly, Softly which got to the number 1 spot in 1955.
Pop fame may be ephemeral but a happy afterlife as a relaxed synonym memorialised Ruby Murray. There are unproven assertions of the slang Ruby Murray being in circulation in the 1960s. It was all a very long time ago; there is no question, however, that a Ruby Murray has been a part of the UK national diet since the 17th November 1983. Episode 2 of the third series of Only Fools and Horses was broadcast that night.
In case it passed you by: Only Fools and Horses was a much-loved BBC TV-sitcom written by John Sullivan.
The character Del Boy (played by actor David Jason – himself rhyming slang for a freemason) gifted Ruby Murray a linguistic form of immortality:
“Well, I thought I might go down and have a couple of light ales down the Nag’s Head, and then go on to the Star of Bengal for a Ruby Murray. Coming?”
Ruby Murray, herself, is reported to have been ‘touched by the alternative use of her name’. She died at the age of 61 in 1996. Her fame had passed but her name lives on.
Years later, in May 2019 things got a bit complicated. Tariq Aziz a Middlesex businessman, director of a company called Murray Ruby Ltd (subtle, not), was granted an ‘exclusive rights’ trademark allowing him to use Ruby Murray for all things related to curry. There followed a brief flurry of fuss in the press. Tim Murray, Ruby’s son was outraged: ‘If anyone should profit from her name, it should be her family first, then her loyal fans.’
Ruby Murray meaning ‘curry’ is a part of our heritage. You may just as well trademark the word ‘curry’. How ridiculous. We know, by definition, that commercial interests are only in it for the money. But are we really going to let them steal the words from our mouths?
The berks at the Intellectual Property Office obviously thinks that kind of thing is OK.
The righteous Tim Murray had threatened legal action but, happily, there’s been no sign of any further activity. That was all more than 6 months ago, now, so fingers crossed, eh. Perhaps Tim and Tariq settled matters over a ruby. Who knows? But the ethical question lingers – is it actually any of their business? Either of them.
Ruby Murray is our word; everybody’s. We, the speakers, own it. The convenient rhyme behind the coinage was accidental and coincidental and, compared with some of the names that get lumbered as rhyming slang, very respectful.
Whist the commercial exploitation of Ruby Murray’s musical oeuvre is entirely the Murray family’s business and responsibility, the family does not own the linguistic heritage of the name. It has no rights over our way with words. Nor does any commercial entity have the moral (copy)right to own a word that has grown up in common usage.
Incidentally, most rhyming slang is lazily and wrongly ascribed as ‘cockney’. If you fancied a curry in Australia – back when Ruby Murray is first attested – it was the American ballroom dancing teacher Arthur Murray who provided the inspiration; later, Scottish slang served up tennis champion Andy Murray; and the American actor Fred MacMurray first curried favour in the Manchester area (some 200+ miles north of anything cockney).
Time to get our martinis on another Vera Lynn.
Fancy a double? Vera Lynn’s My Son My Son and Ruby Murray’s Heartbeat were both in the UK Top 20 in December 1954.
A brief bio of Vera Lynn is probably in order. To be fair, it’s more than likely that the young and trendy gin drinkers of today are more than happy in their ignorance of the 102-year old cultural icon that is Dame Vera Lynn. But back in WW2 (that’s 1939-45 in case you missed the anniversaries) Vera Lynn was known and marketed as the Forces’ Sweetheart. In movies and on record, her sentimental songs and vivacious charms captured hearts.
A shedload of successful albums have been given to ageing relatives down the years, but her final UK chart singles were in 1957. Since then she has moved, with decreasing relevance for a young audience, from pop(ular) singer to celebrity and thence icon. She was made a Dame in 1975and continued to release albums and singles until her retirement in 1991. Her enduring celebrity, however, is forever connected to the military and that generation that saw the war. Vera Lynn, however, has never gone away. Vera Lynn has been rhyming slang for gin since 1946.
Dame Vera Lynn didn’t get where she is today (quoting another sitcom that won’t mean anything to millennials) by endorsing gin.
Halewood International is a drinks company that recently they applied to trademark Vera Lynn. The idea was obviously to market a line of gin under that brand name. Dame Vera took them to court and was successful in her challenge. She argued that her name on a bottle could be considered an endorsement of the products because she has been using her name as an unregistered trademark for music and charity work since 1939.
Nonsense: Dame Vera Lynn is not Vera Lynn.
Yes, Halewood International deserved to lose, of course it did, but for the same cultural reasons that Tariq Aziz ought to not to have been awarded the trademark on Ruby Murray.
The rhyming slang Vera Lynn has been a part of our slang register since 1946 (although, no doubt, some of the consequent subliminal and below-the-line advertising has benefited the original owner/driver). I mean, come on: 1946! That’s seventy-odd years ago. More than two thirds of the current population wasn’t even born then and, with respect, the use of Vera Lynn is the people’s business not Dame Vera’s.
If Halewood International had won… well, you can imagine Del Boy’s night out down the Nag’s Head.
‘I’ll have a vera, thanks, Mike. No, not a Vera Lynn, what do you think I am? Any Vera Lynn but that Vera Lynn. I don’t like Vera Lynn Vera Lynn. Make it a large one and have one yourself.’
No matter whether the old Dame is agin gin in general or just the specific slang hi-jacking brand she took to court, it’s not on, and you can only wonder what she might make of the other rhyming slang lives of Vera Lynn. Perhaps she takes it on the Vera Lynn (chin). Among other things Vera Lynn is also recorded as meaning a cigarette paper (‘skin’) – especially in the context of joints, spliffs or what have you; heroin; and more.
Many, many words have more than one meaning, and down the years the slang life of Vera Lynn has provided a broader linguistic legacy than Ruby Murray. If you are interested I can recommend a good dictionary of rhyming slangs. That’s where you will you discover how martini came to be rhyming slang for hand? Although, given some of the book’s other content, Dame Vera may wish to toss both volumes in the Vera Lynn.
Ruby’s kin and Vera’s legal representatives did miss the point. The English language is all the richer for our two songbirds, it is our language not theirs. No one has exclusive rights to colloquial heritage. The English language is the greatest expression of democratic identity I know. It must not be privatised.