When dance-lord Michael Flatley said he would perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration ball in January, someone cheekily redirected colossalbellend.com to Flatley’s website. (It now points to Trump’s Twitter page.) Reporting on the story, the Guardian noted: ‘Bellend is a British insult.’
Helpful, but short on detail. Just what kind of insult is bell-end? What does it mean, and how is it used? Where did it come from, and when, and why? And what’s bell end brie?
Let Strong Language ring your bell.
For our purposes, the story of bell-end begins in London in 1593 with publication of the anonymously written The Passionate Morrice. Rich in slang, it featured the following line:
But marke his folly and her cunning; he, building Caſtles in the aire, and ſetting trappes in the Sunne to catch the ſhadowe of a coye queane, was pleaſed by her, with wagging his bawble and ringing his bell, while ſhe pickt his pocket and cut his purſſe.
This is the earliest known use of bell to mean ‘penis’. The idea presumably arose through visual analogy: people love (a) metaphors and (b) genitals, and combining the two has a long, fruitful history in slang. (The quoted line also has the first recorded penile use of bawble, developed from the sense of ‘plaything’ or ‘ornament’, slightly predating Romeo and Juliet’s.)
So from bell meaning ‘penis’, centuries later bell-end came by extension [cough] to mean its tip – or its ‘glans’, as the OED formally puts it. Medical dictionaries technify it as ‘the conic expansion of the corpus spongiosum that forms the head of the penis’. Anyway, you know what part of which bit we’re talking about now, if you didn’t already. From this anatomical reference, bell-end soon gained derogatory use, of which more shortly.
Bell-end is chiefly British. I seldom hear it in Ireland, and it’s similarly uncommon in other English-speaking regions. A search for bellend on the giant GloWbe corpus returns 65 hits, 60 of them from Great Britain (2 from Ireland, 2 US, 1 Pakistan). Hyphenated bell-end has 30 hits, 24 of them GB (2 New Zealand, 1 Australia, Hong Kong, South Africa, Kenya). Bell end has 41, again most from the UK. Geographically, it’s fairly niche.
Meanings and use
Semantically, bell-end is close to dickhead in its pejorative allusion to the bulbous tip of the male genitalia. Pragmatically, though, bell-end is less aggressive, less weaponized than dickhead, lying somewhere between wally and wanker. It’s used to deride someone but also, often, to entertain third parties. In this respect it’s closer to knobhead (knob, knob-end, etc.) which, like bell-end, has a humorous, performative quality usually absent from dickhead.
Few non-slang dictionaries include the word. Oxford defines it as ‘an annoying or contemptible man’, and its example sentence – ‘he is a total bellend and should step down as soon as possible’ – shows characteristic third-party male reference. Bell-end is often preceded by an intensifier like total, utter, complete, absolute, massive, or gigantic.
Make no mistake: massive bellend may literally mean ‘huge penis’ but in practice it means ‘major arsehole’, give or take a few inches. Political and public figures are common targets, certain ones repeatedly, but the word is occasionally used with affection too. Here’s a general flavour:
Speaking of flavour (sorry), Roger’s Profanisaurus from Viz has a brief entry for bell end brie. It doesn’t define it directly but supplies the synonyms brimula (‘spreadable knob cheese’), knacker barrel (‘attractively packaged smegma’), and fromunder (‘type of pungent cheese cultivated by the less hygiene-conscious elements of male society’, aka helmetdale: ‘a strong-smelling, mature knob cheese’). Cheeses Haitch.
Style-wise, bell end, bell-end, and bellend are all used. I favour the hyphen, for now, but I may switch to bellend down the line. Preferences vary, and the word hasn’t yet settled enough to be standardised one way or another. Guardian style prescribes bell-end, but other papers argue the toss on Twitter.
Given its popularity (see Twitter for a steady stream of examples), bell-end is surprisingly new. Jonathon Green, in Green’s Dictionary of Slang, dates the first print appearance of the ‘tip of the penis’ sense to 1961, in Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, 5th ed., which bundles it with synonyms blunt end and red end.
Bell-end as a term of abuse came along a few decades later: 1998.* That makes it a lexical teenager: a millennial or a Gen-Z-er, depending on how you, um, slice it. GDoS notes its debut in Kevin Sampson’s football novel Awaydays (‘Them bell-ends’), which also uses the word in its physical sense (‘Teasing himself in the shower, deluging his numb bell-end with the scalding needles’).
How long the anatomical and pejorative bell-ends were in spoken use before these dates is open to speculation. If you have data, anecdata, or antedata, let me know in a comment (or on Twitter at @stronglang or @StanCarey). Bellendery and bellendage, meaning ‘stupid behaviour’, showed up more recently; bellendery seems more likely to catch on.
In non-slang use, bell end goes way back. Its original meaning was musical, ‘the flared end of a trumpet or other wind instrument’ (1826), soon extended to engineering domains: ‘an end of a rod, pipe, tube, etc., which is flared or curved like a bell’ (1851), and then applied to tents: ‘an enclosed extension from the main living space of a tent, typically having a rounded shape’ (1919). All definitions and dates are from the OED.
Bell-end in the news
Bell-end’s polysemy doesn’t cause much ambiguity, since the contexts it appears in keep to themselves for the most part. But every so often we get a headline like this from a subeditor who probably can’t believe their luck:
This one refers to Big Ben, and maybe also to the MPs [via]:
The comedy-tabloid Sunday Sport makes frequent use of the word’s unique appeal, with headlines such as Fidget Spinner Scorched My Bellend; Nik Naks Turned My Bellend Orange; Sex with Mr Frosty Mangled My Bellend; Sex with Greggs Pasty Boiled My Bellend!; Sex with Tesco Value Lasagne Blistered My Bellend; and Rice Krispies Down Chap’s Eye Made My Bellend Go Pop!. There should be a special support group.
In 2014 bell-end featured in a diplomatic cock-fight after Jeremy Clarkson and his Top Gear team abandoned a car in Argentina with the number plates ‘BE11 END’ inside. Some locals saw it as an intended provocation over the Falklands. Another row broke out when Manchester City dropped its plan to name a stand after Colin Bell, one of its greatest former players, supposedly to avoid it being dubbed ‘Bell End’ by opposing fans.
Just before Christmas 2016, the Blackpool Gazette shared footage (warning: the video plays automatically) of a ‘festive joker’ who adorned his house with this smutty dingbat-cum-decoration:
The deadpan subtitle is from a police officer on the scene.
Ali G was partial to bell-end and raised the word’s profile in the UK. Conducting an interview about drugs, he wondered what chemical in ecstasy made you ‘dance like a bell end’, and when visiting the UN Security Council Chamber, he sat in the secretary-general’s seat and wrote: ‘Dear Prez, Saddam Hussen [sic] iz a bellend / sort him out’.
Finally: Bell End is also a place name in the UK (of course it is). Bell End village in the West Midlands appears regularly in lists and maps of rude place names, and Bell End is also a street name in various towns. A recent investigation by the Birmingham Mail found that for Bell End in Rowley Regis, ‘having a slightly embarrassing name hasn’t made a difference towards its property prices’. Cheesemongers, take note.
* Update: Hugo van Kemenade (aka @hugovk) has antedated pejorative bellend to 28 September 1992, in a Usenet posting on rec.sports.soccer: ‘perhaps you are referring to that infamous collection of bellends, known as w.b.a. (win bugger all)’.