From Lady Saba Holland's memoir of her father the Rev. Sydney Smith, published circa 1855:

The reigning bore at this time in Edinburgh was ——; his favourite subject, the North Pole. It mattered not how far south you began, you found yourself transported to the north pole before you could take breath; no one escaped him. My father declared he should invent a slip button. Jeffrey fled from him as from the plague, when possible; but one day his arch-tormentor met him in a narrow lane, and began instantly on the north pole. Jeffrey, in despair and out of all patience, darted past him, exclaiming, "D— the north pole!" My father met him shortly after, boiling with indignation at Jeffrey's contempt of the north pole. "Oh, my dear fellow," said my father, "never mind; no one minds what Jeffrey says, you know; he is a privileged person; he respects nothing, absolutely nothing. Why, you will scarcely believe it, but it is not more than a week ago that I heard him speak disrespectfully of the equator!"

I think it's fairly clear that the meaning of the bolded sentence is "My father said that my father fantasized about inventing a physical device for slipping away from that boring person."

However, what exactly is a "slip button," or what would the circa-1855 reader have understood the circa-1797 Rev. Smith to have meant by the phrase?

Google tells me that a "slip button" may be some part of a drill assembly, such as in an oil well, which coincidentally is also something which bores; but I'm not sure that a clergyman in the 1790s would be making oil-well jokes. I expect the answer to be something about clothing, somehow, but I can't find any textual support for that idea. Anyway, I'd still appreciate an explanation of what a "slip button" is in the borehole context, because I can't make head or tail of the few references I found!

(Most Google results for "slip button" these days are about the button that turns on all-wheel drive mode in your car when it's icy out. That's clearly unrelated to the reverend's meaning here.)

1 Answer 1


The Kentucky Age for 10th February 1857 contains a short story which opens as follows:

A celebrated wit once said he had found out a patent “slip button,” so that when a bore laid hold of him, and was detaining him with a long story, he had only to slip the button, leaving it in the bore’s fingers, and make his escape.

The contrivance was an ingenious and valuable one, and had the inventor, as threatened, taken out a patent, many would doubtless have adopted the useful article.

Anon (1857). ‘A Bachelor’s Button’. In The Kentucky Age (10th February 1857), p. 1.

The “celebrated wit” must be Sydney Smith himself: Lady Holland’s memoirs, published two years previously, supplying the inspiration for the story.

I think this story makes it clear how contemporary readers would have understood the phrase “slip button”. The bore is imagined to be grasping a button on the coat of the victim,† who makes an escape in the manner of a ship that “slips the cable” and leaves its anchor on the seabed.

† This was a common figure of speech. The Oxford English Dictionary has:

button-hold, v. To accost (a person) and detain him or her in conversation as if by taking hold of a button on his or her clothing.

As pointed out by Peter Shor in comments, “buttonhole” has a similar meaning, except that it is the hole that is imagined as being grasped rather than the button.

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    And these are all playing off the verb to buttonhole, meaning "to detain in conversation by or as if by holding on to the outer garments of".
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 2, 2021 at 23:14
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    @GarethRees: good catch in finding "button-hold"; I'd never seen it before. It seems clear that buttonhole is an eggcorn for button-hold (or just maybe the other way around, but the OED has buttonhole appearing ten years after button-hold).
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 3, 2021 at 12:10
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    @TannerSwett I set it out deliberately in this order, with the evidence first, and my interpretation of the evidence afterwards, so that you can come to your own conclusions about it before you see what I think. Mar 3, 2021 at 18:24
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    @duct_tape_coder: I searched the Internet Archive for "slip button" in ascending order of publication date, and after skipping many editions of Lady Holland's memoirs (suggesting that the book was popular) I got lucky with the story in the Kentucky Age. (Looking at the search results again, it seems that the story had been previously published in the Rural New Yorker for 22 November 1856.) Mar 3, 2021 at 22:16
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    Oh, I like this. For me it invokes a lizard breaking off its tail to escape a predator.
    – Nick O.
    Mar 4, 2021 at 1:30

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