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And a Centre of Advanced Technology isn't going to be allowed to regard literature as a technology, even though it is. Look at the authors already out of print and likely to remain so. The levelling's going to reach the limit. Not even technical brilliance in the performing arts is going to be allowed. Them kids what sings and plays the guitar does all right, don't they, earning millions though they loses it all in tax, and they never had a bleeding lesson in their bleeding puffs.

- 1985 by Anthony Burgess

Puff has several meanings according to Cambridge Dictionary as a noun:

  1. a small amount of smoke, air, or something that can rise into the air in a small cloud
  2. a piece of food made of puff pastry filled with something sweet or with food such as cheese
  3. an act of smoking

But none of them is proper for the text. Note that the text is written in Workers' English which is a fictional language in the book 1985.

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2 Answers 2

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Puff=breath=life. British working-class slang. Never in my puff = never in my life.

Phrases - in all one's puff- British informal - In one's whole life.

Puff (Lexico)

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    I don't think this usage has any particular association with Cockneys. It's more a Northern/Midlands usage (Burgess grew up in Manchester, which might partly explain why he still used the term when it had largely gone out of fashion). Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:34
  • Haha - upvoted after the edit. The rest of the world needs to know that not all British working-class people are Cockneys. (Just as they need to know that not all Britons come from England! :) Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:40
  • The phrase "Not on your nelly" (No chance!) is considered to be Cockney rhyming slang for "Not on your life!" (Nelly Duff, whoever she was = puff = life.) Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:46
  • @KateBunting - many suppose that there never a person called Nelly or Nellie Duff. i have heard that some Scots say 'Nellie Puff'. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:50
  • @KateBunting: Many people seem to assume that all rhyming slang in BrE is Cockney, but obviously it's at least possible that Not on your Nellie! originated outside of London (perhaps Scotland). Partridge notes the specifically Irish variant Not on your Nannie! And I'm sure Irish and Scottish slang usages are on average far more connected to each other than either of them are to Cockney slang. Also, for what it's worth, I used to have a Scottish Auntie Nellie myself for real! Commented Sep 9, 2021 at 16:34
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It's a very dated slang usage, defined in the full OED as...

puff g. colloquial (originally and chiefly British)
Life; span or length of life; esp. in in (all) one's (born) puff: in a person's experience, in all a person's life (chiefly in negative contexts).

I wouldn't recommend using it with this sense today. Most native speakers under 70 probably wouldn't understand you.

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  • I'm under 70, and I know it. Someone said it on 'EastEnders' recently. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:31
  • Eastenders scriptwriters aren't necessarily concerned with what Cockneys actually say! Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:42
  • Tell me abaht it! Honesty (or snobbery) compels me to confess that I don't actually watch the programme, but my wife does, and I can hear it while I am at the computer. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:44
  • I am under 70 by 7 months. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 12:46
  • Leave it aht, mate! I don't actually watch the programme either, but my ex-wife does/did. Anyway, nowadays I share my house with a dyed-in-the-wool Cockney, and when I just asked him about this one he said he's only ever heard puff = life from Scottish speakers. Commented Sep 8, 2021 at 15:52

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