An unlikely swearword hit the headlines twice in recent days, thanks to its use on mainstream television from two prominent figures. In the first clip below, celebrity journalist Piers Morgan uses bollock as a transitive verb (meaning ‘scold, reprimand’) on the ITV chat show Good Morning Britain:
The phrase ‘whether he’s praising them or bollocking them’ is in reference to letters Prince Charles wrote to his sons William and Harry and the difficulty they sometimes had in deciphering his handwriting.
Presenter Susanna Reid immediately told Morgan to ‘excuse your language’, and after expressing surprise (‘Can you not say that?!’) he quickly apologised to viewers. Bollock and its derivatives are milder than prototypical swearwords like fuck but much ruder than synonyms like reprimand, roast and reproach. After all, bollocks refers chiefly to testicles.
The other bollocking came from Prince William himself, who used it as a noun in a documentary on ITV – again in reference to the brothers showing each other their father’s letters ‘just in case it was a bollocking we didn’t know about’. A bollocking often collocates with give or get, depending on one’s point of view, but not in this case.
Discounting a one-off 17thC use to mean slander, the noun bollocking meaning ‘a stern scolding’ entered written English in the 1940s. The OED cites Gerald Kersh’s military stories Clean, Bright and Slightly Oiled of 1946: ‘Reads some books and then gives ’em a ballocking in the papers’; while Green’s Dictionary of Slang has rhyming slang from Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Of Love and Hunger in 1947: ‘Gave me a god-awful rolluxing Monday.’
This was a few years after the verb’s debut, in Welsh poet Alun Lewis’s army tales Last Inspection: ‘He’d gone round bollucking them right and left.’ Bolluck is not usual, and over time the ba– spellings are losing ground: bollocks overtook ballocks in the 1960s; ballocking seems to have peaked during WWII. Bollock (v.) also had an earlier sense which the OED defines vividly as: ‘In a fight: to grab an opponent’s testicles forcefully. . . . Usually in collocation with bite and gouge.’ It is now mercifully rare.
The original bollock ‘testicle’, probably from ball < Indo-European root bhel- ‘to blow, swell’, was a venerable word in Old English that occurred even in surnames and place names and carried no connotations of vulgarity: only later did it gain its ribald flavour. As slang lexicographer Jonathon Green writes, in his excellent history Language! 500 Years of the Vulgar Tongue:
Abbot Aelfric’s Latin to Anglo-Saxon Glossary (c. 1000) translates podex as ars and testiculi as beallucas, the ‘ancestor’ of the modern bollocks. No one would pretend that the writer-theologian was an adept of the counter-language.
It even appears in Wycliffe’s Bible, in the Middle English form ballokes, in reference to castrated beasts:
Al beeste that outher with al to-brokun or crippid or kitt and taken awey the ballokes is, ȝe shulen not offre to the Lord.
Yet despite Piers Morgan’s surprise at the word’s unsuitability for morning television, many people consider bollocks positively offensive. Delete Expletives? (PDF), a report by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2000, ranked it the eighth most severe swearword, down from sixth in 1998:
Breaking it down further, the same report found that over half of participants (from a total of 1033) think bollocks is ‘severe’ and a quarter ‘very severe’. There’s a much larger discrepancy by gender than by age:
Chambers Slang Dictionary, by the same Jonathon Green, outlines the relatively recent fall from unmarked use (if not exactly grace) of ballocks:
11C but remained SE [Standard English] until late 18C; it appears in Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dict. in all editions f. 1721–1800 but was not included in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, which drew heavily on Bailey’s word-list, in 1755; one must thus assume that the word was passing then from polite use; it was definitely slang by 1800 and appears as such in Grose (1788, 1796) though, oddly, in neither Grose (1785), Hotten nor F&H; thus Ballock Hall, 17C home of Adam & Lucy Loftus, and known for its unsavoury reputation; note single use as a term of affection in Urquhart, The Complete Works of Rabelais (1653): ‘I must grip thee, my ballock, till thy back crack with it’
Green also offers bollacking as a ‘coarse intensive’ in Irish use, bollicking as a ‘general intensifier’, e.g., bollicking awful, and a frankly amazing array of bollock-related usages and expressions, should your bookshelf be in want of such treasures. Here’s an example of the intensifying use:
Plural bollocks (ballocks, bollicks, bollox, bollix, etc.) has a variety of senses aside from its original testicles reference. It came to mean ‘nonsense, rubbish’ about a century ago – Orwell once bemoaned ‘all that bollux about libel’ in a letter – and this is now a very common and expressive usage, exemplified in a post by David Crystal last year. It’s also a near-antonym in the dog’s bollocks, equivalent to the bee’s knees or the cat’s pyjamas.
In some dialects, such as Irish English, bollocks can serve as a mild personal insult. James Joyce, in Ulysses, writes: ‘Who’s the old ballocks you were talking to?’, and it is used in emphatic idiomatic constructions like I will in my bollocks (= I will not) and Can I bollox (= I can’t). This versatility is well demonstrated in Terry O’Hagan’s post, and here:
Given the ASA’s findings above, you might expect bollocks and its variations to be largely the preserve of people who have bollocks, but in my own experience and from browsing the web its use doesn’t seem especially gender-skewed. Definite geographical patterns have been detected, though: Jack Grieve’s swear map of the US shows bollocks to be correlated with bloody and concentrated in western and northeastern states:
Compared to bollocks, the bollocking we heard from Piers Morgan and Prince William is not nearly as common. It appears in neither my Macquarie Book of Slang from Australia (admittedly out-of-date: 1996) nor my Dictionary of American Slang by Robert Chapman (ditto: 1987). To find out where it’s used and how much, we need to search a nice big corpus.
GloWbE, which contains 1.9b words from 20 English-speaking countries, offers 155 hits for bollocking, distributed thus: 103 UK, 13 New Zealand, 12 Ireland, 11 Australia, 7 US, 2 South Africa, and 1 each in various other countries. That’s 90% in those first four, and 95.5% non-US use. Bollicking and bollacking have single-figure hits in GloWbE, restricted to the UK, Ireland, and NZ. The counts are too low to hang a definitive conclusion on, but they are strongly indicative of present distribution.
As for how it’s used, the vast majority of GloWbE’s examples are the noun use; a few are verbs or intensifiers. Searching on Twitter gives a similar pattern. If you ignore all the current references to Prince William, you’ll see it’s often used in relation to parents, sports managers or other authority figures who are giving their charges a bollocking. And there I’ll leave it before I invite a bollocking by overdoing things.
Bollocks was the UK-to-US word of the year 2012 on Lynne Murphy’s blog separated by a common language. Commenting on the ASA severity list, she writes: ‘Most British people I know would contest that ordering of offensiveness, with bollocks feeling pretty mild these days. But still, it’s not something that would easily make its way onto a billboard.’