Q From Alastair Chapman, Suffolk: Can you please help with the origins of the phrase rum do, which I take to mean an unacceptable occurrence?
A The books say rum do is an old-fashioned bit of British slang. I would agree with that, except that nobody seems to have told the British journalist, who keeps using it. This, for example, appeared earlier in the month in which I’m writing, in the Times for 6 February 2008: “It seems a rum do, however, that women must wait for a cavalry of progressive male CEOs to ride to the rescue.” It would be possible to quote many others. However, it is now used mostly as a deliberately old-fashioned or humorous term.
The second half is easy enough to explain. It refers to an event or happening, especially an organised one such as an entertainment or a party (as in Madeline Kerr’s People of Ship Street of 1958 about life in a Liverpool slum, “Her family has a ‘do’ every year on the anniversary of the day her mother’s father died.”) It turns up typically in sentences like “We’re having a big do next week for Mark’s eighteenth birthday” or “Joe’s changing jobs and we’re organising a leaving do for him”. It can also mean a fuss or commotion, as in a bit of a do. Terry Pratchett used it in Soul Music, “Ha! That was a bit of a do. That’s when poor old Vince got stabbed.” In this sense do dates from the early nineteenth century.
The first half has nothing to do with the drink, whose name appeared about a century later than our word. It began as what the Oxford English Dictionary described as a canting term, that is, one of the criminal underworld. To start with it was positive, meaning variously good, fine, excellent or great. So rum booze was fine or excellent drink, a rum duke was a handsome man and a rum dab was a dextrous thief (dabs are fingers).
Around 1800 the word did a complete flip in sense from positive to negative and started to mean something that was odd, strange or peculiar. A rum book was a curious or strange one, a rum customer was a peculiar man or one risky to offend, a rum phiz was an odd face and so on. The OED guesses (I think it’s fair to say) that it came about through one of these slang expressions, perhaps rum cove, originally an excellent or first-class rogue, but in which rum was mistakenly taken to be derogatory by those unversed in criminal slang. Other terms also shifted their senses over time: at the end of the nineteenth century the English Dialect Dictionary noted rum duke was “a strange, unaccountable person”, a substantial shift in sense from the original. There were once dozens of slang terms that included rum in one sense or the other, all now obsolete. There’s also rummy, from the same source and with much the same meaning of something strange or peculiar.
Where it comes from is disputed. Some suggest it might have been borrowed from Rome, the city of glory and grandeur, as a term of great approval (there is some slight evidence for this in that the word could in its early days be spelled rome); others point to the Romany rom, a man. A third group, of which the OED and I are members, confess we have absolutely no idea.