There is a section of the community ... whose life seems to consist of cocktail and sherry parties, cabarets and midnight revelries ... These are decadent 'bright young things'
(from The Morning Post, 1936)
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bright young thing as "a member of the younger generation in fashionable society"; whilst The Oxford Dictionary of English takes a slightly different tack and explains that it means "an enthusiastic, ambitious, and self-consciously fashionable young person". Both however agree that the phrase is derived from the social set of the 1920s who were "noted for exuberant and outrageous behaviour".
The social set in question were originally were originally known as the Bright Young People, and included the likes of Bryan Guinness and his wife Diana Mitford, Stephen Tennant, Cecil Beaton, Brenda Dean Paul, Elizabeth Ponsonby, Eleanor Furneaux Smith, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh and John Betjeman, who became famous for their parties and general mischief, although like most young people their primary concerns were drinking and sex.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary the Bright Young People were first mentioned in Punch's Almanack of the 7th November 1927, which referred to the "Bright Young People" who "literally 'set the Thames on fire'", other sources however insist that the name "originally appeared as part of a Daily Mail headline" of the 26th July 1924, and indeed the Mail has claimed authorship of the term. As it happens both are wrong as The Times of the 15th July 1924 ran a story under the headline 'Game of "Chasing Clues"' based on an incident which took place on the 21st May, in which it referred to "the Society game of 'Chasing Clues' which was organized by the Society of the Bright Young People". In fact there is an even earlier reference from The Times of the 5th February 1924, which featured an advertorial piece promoting Selfridge & Co Ltd entitled 'A Merry Spirit' by a certain Callisthenes, which extolled the virtues of the typical Selfridge's shop assistant and claimed that the store had "attracted bright young people, alert, vigorous, ambitious, and full of that joy in life and work which is the true source of that pleasant courtesy for which they are known". (Although of course Callisthenes clearly meant something different by the bright young people employed by Selfridges.)
What is clear however is that towards the end of the 1920s the Bright Young People somehow become the Bright Young Things. Significantly in 1927 Punch ran a cartoon by Lewis Berner which showed a middle-aged woman in conversation with a bald and therefore presumably similarly middle-aged man as she asked him, "Are you one of the Bright Young People? I am." However when the same Lewis Berner had a collection of his "pictorial humour" published by Methuen in 1928 it appeared under the title 'Bright Young Things', although he was beaten to the punch in this regard by the title of the book 'Brighter French For Bright Young Things Who Already Know Some' by one H.T.R. which had been published by Geoffrey Bles a year earlier in 1927. It might well be suggested that the adoption of 'things' in place of 'people' indicated a certain amount of reproach or at least disapproval directed towards the bright young individuals concerned, and certainly from about 1928 onwards 'Bright Young Things' became by far the more common of the two expressions. The Oxford English Dictionary cites such literary heavyweights as D. H. Lawrence (1928) and G. K. Chesterton (1929) who adopted the 'bright young thing', whilst when the cartoonist Norman Pett began a weekly comic strip in the Daily Mirror on the 5th December 1932, he chose 'Jane's Journal - or the Diary of a Bright Young Thing' as the title. (And which later metamorphosed into the wartime 'Jane', the woman who always lost her clothes no matter what the circumstances.)
Of course the original Bright Young People of the 1920s achieved something approaching lasting fame when their antics provided much of the source material that Evelyn Waugh used to in writing Vile Bodies, which was first published on the 14th January 1930. However when Stephen Fry wrote and directed his film adaptation of Vile Bodies which appeared in 2003, he chose Bright Young Things as the title for the movie, so confirming how 'things' has long since predominated over 'people'. Indeed the phrase Bright Young Things has since been appropriated for a number of commercial ventures. There is "a niche executive search and recruitment consultancy" known as Bright Young Things, as well as a Bright Young Things Communications which is a "next generation communications consultancy". They are joined by Bright Young Things Tuition, and a comedy collective known as Bright Young Things, whilst Leeds City Council's Arts and Regeneration Unit runs an annual Bright Young Things competition for musicians and the Island of Guernsey runs an "entrepreneur contest" under the same. None of whom it would appear to be concerned about any associations with "exuberant and outrageous behaviour".
Nevertheless one can still find contemporary references to both 'bright young people' and 'bright young things', although it appears these days that the former is most frequently used in an educational context, as in the reference by the BBC to a study which "showed there were significant numbers of bright young people with academic potential who do not progress to university"; whilst the latter appears to be favoured in a sporting context, as in the headline 'International bright young things' from The Observer. What both share in common is a complete disregard for the historical origins of the phrase and any connexions to Waugh's early literary career, and in most contemporary contexts the phrase 'bright young things' appears to be used in the same sense as it was originally deployed by Callisthenes back in the February of 1924 to refer to "alert, vigorous, ambitious" young people who are full of "joy in life and work", rather than to a bunch of sexually ambiguous hedonists who lived from party to party.
Please note that some of the above is dangerously close to being original research and should therefore be treated with a certain amount of caution.
- The Oxford English Dictionary, http://www.oed.com/
- "bright young thing noun" The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson
. Oxford University Press, 2005. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press.
- Various contemporary reports from The Times digital archive
- Talents of bright pupils 'wasted', BBC News, 12 June 2008
- International bright young things, The Observer, June 22 2008
- Bright Young Things Communications
- Bright Young Things Tuition
- Bright Young Things (comedy collective )
- Leeds City Council Bright Young Things 2008
Tom Edwards, Bright Young Things shine at St James, The Guernsey Press, May 2, 2008