Mind your language

The Lib Dems are wrong – it’s ‘ballocks’ to Brexit

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

13 July 2019

9:00 AM

I agree with James Joyce on the spelling ballocks. The Liberal Democrats made their MEPs wear T-shirts printed with ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ to the European parliament. But ballocks are to balls what hillocks are to hills.

An old word, it appears in a manuscript glossary from the early 10th century. To spell it bollocks is like spelling bastard as bastid, to which many walls bear witness. It appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1885 under ballock, as it still does in Jonathon Green’s Dictionary of Slang. The OED notes, unsmilingly, that the spelling bollock ‘shows rounding’.

Also without a smile, it remarks that it is found ‘usually in the plural’.


The Irish often use ballocks to mean a blundering idiot, in the singular number: ‘I’m a ballocks,’ says Temple in Portrait of the Artist. Joyce gets him to add: ‘That word is a most interesting word. That’s the only English dual number. Did you know?’ That’s only a joke. Old English had a selection of dual pronouns: wit (‘we two’), unc (‘to us two’), inc (‘to you two’), but they sadly fell out of use in the 14th century.

Anyway, some Lib Dem spokesman said on the wireless that ballocks is not a swear-word. That can’t be true.

‘The word is sometimes written with asterisks,’ comments the OED avuncularly, ‘so as to avoid the charge of obscenity.’ At most it can be said that displaying the album cover for the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks in a shop window was found in 1977 not to contravene the Indecent Advertisements Act 1889 (invoked in 1891 over a poster for the Royal Aquarium’s curvaceous acrobat Zaeo).

John Mortimer pulled the wool over the court’s eyes with the help of an ‘expert witness’, Professor James Kinsley of Nottingham University, who assured them the word was Old English and had been used to refer to a priest. I suspect that it was not explained that the reference to a priest was based on an anecdote in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), in which a ‘rude fellow’ accosts a clergyman as ‘Bollocks the Rector’. In 1977, the defendants, backed by Virgin Records, won the case, which cemented the spelling bollocks in the British mind.

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