British slang: why is a fight called a "Barney"?

This question must have a factual answer, so I’ll post it in GQ. If a mod feels it’s more appropriate elsewhere, please feel free to move it.

“Are you having a Barney? I’ll hold your coat.”

I’ve heard a fight described as “Barney” several times and have wondered about its origins. Is it rhyming slang? Is it named after a famous fighter?

Curious in FL

Well, if Don Cheadle in Ocean’s 11 can be believed, it’s rhyming slang.

Barney -> Barney Rubble -> trouble

Never heard that when I lived in England as a kid but one thing popped into my head - “Barney Rubble” rhymes with “Trouble”, shortened to “Barney”.

…and quick Google search appears to confirm this:

Thank you! You folks are quick!

A mod may close this thread now. Thanks again!

Did the Cockneys really know who Barney Rubble is?

Gorblimey howsyerfather they do have tellies in Cockneyland.

I don’t know, but The Flintstones was televised here in Australia, and “Barney” is not uncommon here. I actually would have thought it predated the cartoon, but maybe not - it’s only used by older Australians, but then again the show ain’t exactly young now either.

My grandfather (born 1908) used to use it quite frequently, so it obviously pre-dates any rhyming slang references associated with the Flintstones cartoons. He always claimed that it was Irish in origin.

That’s what I’d always assumed, actually.

While even Cockneys will be familiar with The Flintstones, the usage in English slang has nothing to do with Barney, Fred, etc.

From Partridge’s Dictionary of Historical Slang (1937; Penguin, 1972):

More generally, barney has various meanings, clustered around cheating or rowdyness.

This page seems to back up the Irish theory:

Though, equally, Partridge’s entry on barney can be seen to support a derivation from Barnard Castle, which is hardly Irish.

No because the Barnard Castle meaning refers to meaning number 3 - “humbug, cheating, low”. And it specifically says that this may have a different origin. Barney, in the sense of fight, comes from number 6 which is rooted in number 1 - “typical of a noisy Irishman”

I’m really not convinced that there’s an absolute line between a meaning that implies cheating and one that implies a punchup, either in 19th century Ireland or County Durham in the same period.

maybe. The Irish source seems strong though. In any case, can I just say that I have absolutely fallen in love with the whole concept of the phrase:

‘“come! come! that’s Barney Castle!” . . . an expression often uttered when a person is heard making a bad excuse in a still worse cause’,

The idea of making a bad excuse in a still worse cause just sounds hilarious to me.

Is the late 20th century etymology ‘Barney Gumble’ - ‘rumble’?

Although I find this quite hard to believe, living in England I very often hear both “barney” and “paddy” used to describe commotion. And Paddy is definitely used to indicate stereotypical Irishness. Just because I find it hard to believe doesn’t make it impossible :slight_smile:

Just to throw another (unsubstantiated) idea into the mix, could Barney perhaps come from Blarney - as in “kiss the Blarney Stone”?

I think I should make it clear what I mean - I’m not trying to say that kissing the Blarney Stone leads to a fight. I mean that it is closely associated with being Irish, which Partridge suggests makes one “rowdy”. Just a thought.

We certainly do use the phrase “to have a paddy” but it doesn’t mean a fight - it means to completely lose your rag and act out.

I have no idea where “Barney” comes from - but my dad used to use it and he predated the Flinstones by decades.

Personally I prefer “pagga” or “Donnybrook”

The Cockneys still exist, you know.