6

In Nancy Mitford's Love in a Cold Climate, Lady Montdore bemoans her daughter Polly's lack of interest in getting married, or even landing a boyfriend. She says to her friend Lady Patricia:

"What can be the matter with Polly? So beautiful and no B.A. at all.”

“S.A.,” said Lady Patricia faintly, “or B.O.”

“When we were young none of that existed, thank goodness. S.A. and B.O., perfect rubbish and bosh—one was a beauty or a jolie-laide, and that was that.

(Jolie-laide means an unconventially attractive woman.)

My wild guess is that S.A. stands for sex appeal. Maybe B.A. is boyfriend appeal? As for B.O., I have no clue (except of course that it doesn't have its current meaning).

If anyone could confirm or refute my guesses, and explain the last term, I'd be thankful.


Let me add that Polly is described as a classic beauty, compared with the Wyndham sisters, for example. Moreover her beauty has an almost ethereal cast. That's why, in context, "body odour" makes no sense. Also it would be totally out of character for Ladies Montdore and Patricia to be referring to that.

5

“B.A.” is Lady Montdore’s mistake. That is, she attempts to use the current slang, but gets it wrong. This is indicated by Lady Patricia’s reply, in which she corrects her friend by offering two alternatives for what she might have meant. As noted in comments, “B.O.” does not seem to be a very likely alternative in context, which suggests that Lady Patricia’s command of slang is little better than her friend’s.

“B.O.” for “body odour” goes back to the 1930s. The OED has these citations:

1933   Sat. Evening Post 14 Jan. 91/3   Those ‘B.O.’ ads. I laughed at—is the joke on me?
1936   W. H. Auden & C. Isherwood Ascent of F6 ii. iii. 96   And some I know have got B.O.: But these are not for me.

Oxford English Dictionary.

So Mitford is not committing any anachronisms when employing the term in the early-1930s setting of Love in a Cold Climate.

“S.A.” meaning “sex appeal” has a similar vintage. Here are some early citations:

1926   Amer. Mercury Dec. 465   The girl is a looker with an armful of S.A. (sex appeal).
1930   H. R. Wakefield in London Merc. Feb. 315   They possessed so much S.A., IT, and B.U., that males of all ages..immediately fell for them.

Oxford English Dictionary.

The 1930 citation has two other synonyms for “sex appeal”: “IT” is just the word “it” (popularized by Elinor Glyn’s 1927 novel of that title) and “B.U.” is short for “biological urge” (New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, p. 275).

4
  • I said that B.O. didn’t have its current meaning, not because it would be an anachronism but because in context it’s clearly meant to be a positive attribute, like S.A. It would be wildly out of character for Lady Montdore or Lady Patricia to speculate that Polly’s problem stemmed from body odor. (And given the way Polly is described, that’s the last thing anyone would suspect her of.) B.U. would make sense, with your citation. Nov 18 at 17:13
  • Another possibility is that neither woman has a particularly good command of slang. Nov 18 at 17:51
  • Yes, I came to the same conclusion after reading your answer. Very helpful. Nov 18 at 17:54
  • Lady Montdore wonders why Polly shows no signs of pursuing a husband. Lack of B.U. would explain it, and lack of S.A. explains why she is not pursued. Nov 18 at 19:11

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