The term was used by airman in World War II for pilots that were missing or killed.

The origin of the term is not certain. Some believe that it has to do with Burton beer which is produced in Burton-on-Trent. Others have speculated that it has to do with a Spanish Burton, a complicated pulley system involving three blocks. Still others believe that the term originated with a-burton, a method of stacking wooden casks for transport on ships that was prone of toppling.

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