The fresh prints of ‘bell-end’

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. 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? If you gotta have more bell-end, you’re in the right place: Let Strong Language ring your bell.

Image macro of Christopher Walken in Saturday Night Live saying, "I gotta have more 'bell-end', baby!" (instead of "cowbell")

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.

Distribution

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:

Front cover of Viz comic compilation titled "Viz: The Big Bell End"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.

Spelling

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.

History

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:

Guardian headline: "Olympics 2012: peaks of laughter as Jeremy Hunt loses his bell end"

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.

Sunday Sport page with headline: "Sex with Tesco value lasagne blistered my bellend", supplemented by photos of the purported shopper, a newly resigned Tesco boss, and the offending lasagne with a hole in it

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:

Image from video posted by Blackpool Gazette, showing rude Christmas lights on front of house: a crude representation of male genitalia, a bell, and the word "end". Subtitle, a line spoken by a police officer, says: "Well that's not very Christmassy is it?"

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’.

Place names

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)’.

10 thoughts on “The fresh prints of ‘bell-end’

  1. Spank The Monkey August 2, 2017 / 5:51 pm

    I can’t believe that you didn’t mention the time The Darkness nearly got a variant on bell-end to the Christmas Number One. (Bonus points for use of ‘ringpiece’ in the same chorus.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Stan Carey August 2, 2017 / 8:09 pm

      Would you believe I didn’t know the song? And if I had heard it, in another context, I’m not sure I’d have noticed the almost-rudeness.

      Like

  2. Richard A. August 3, 2017 / 3:37 am

    Wow, I’d never heard of this before (I’m in Canada). I don’t suppose it’ll make it’s way to this side of the pond, but then again I guess it’s impossible to predict these types of things!

    Like

    • Stan Carey August 3, 2017 / 7:32 am

      Its profile in Canada and the US seems very low at the moment, but who knows – it may gain minor currency. Worth keeping an ear out for it!

      Like

  3. Patrick Collins August 3, 2017 / 8:21 pm

    Surely the “bawble” of 1593 was not in the general sense of plaything or toy but the “fool’s bauble”, defined by the OED as:

    “A baton or stick, surmounted by a fantastically carved head with asses’ ears, carried by the Court Fool or jester of former days as a mock emblem of office.”

    That would be closer in semblance and mockery. There are two possible etymologies for the fool’s bauble given in the OED, one being related to bobbing or bobbling – wavering, oscillating. So, a stick with a head meant to be shaken so the ears wobble amusingly would be appropriate.

    The bauble was decorated with bells and these would ring as the fool’s bauble was tugged.

    Like

    • Patrick Collins August 4, 2017 / 6:38 am

      I am not sure if I made it clear that I would say this interpretation of the 1593 quote means the bell is definitely not the penis but the testicles. As the balls dangle and swing when the bauble is waggled the analogy is much clearer.

      Like

    • Stan Carey August 4, 2017 / 8:23 am

      For bauble, the OED’s sense 2 (child’s plaything) and 3 (showy trinket or ornament) make sense too. The imagery is open to interpretation, so I’m not persuaded by your case; less still by ‘surely’ and ‘definitely’. And if bell = testicles, why does Passionate Morrice not use the word in the plural? Why ‘ringing his bell’ instead of ‘bells’?

      Like

      • Patrick Collins August 4, 2017 / 8:50 pm

        Within the same paragraph as the quote from Passionate Morrice the owner of the bawble is called a “foole”. The description is not of childishness at all but of adult folly.

        The “natural” in Romeo and Juliet to whose bauble you refer

        ************************************************************
        for this drivelling love is like a great natural,
        that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.
        ************************************************************

        is that type of natural defined by the OED as:

        ***********************************************************************************************
        7. A person having a low learning ability or intellectual capacity; a person born with impaired intelligence. Cf. natural fool n.
        ***********************************************************************************************

        Mercutio’s natural [fool]’s bauble may be a penis but it is also clearly the fool’s baton and not “developed from the sense of ‘plaything’ or ‘ornament’” which have no such inherent associations with the fool or the phallic.

        According to “A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature” by Gordon Williams there appear to be a large range of confusing meanings to sexual bells and phallic clappers. Do also look at his bauble. There is no example there of a singular bell testicle but the OED says of “ball” for testicle “Usually in pl.” There is one quote in the OED for “Þe maide þat ȝevit hirsilf alle Oþir to fre man oþir to þralle..And pleiit with þe croke and wiþ þe balle, And mekit gret þat erst was smalle.”

        Tudor writing is very inventive and difficult to parse but even so, the gent from Passionate Morrice already has a penis, why would he be wagging that and ringing his other penis? Now, if you were arguing that “bell” were the glans penis alone and not the whole thing, it would be harder to deny.

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  4. misterslang August 4, 2017 / 12:19 pm

    Bauble as ‘testicle’ is, at least as recorded in GDoS, always in plural, i.e. ‘testicles’ as the assumed pair. Bauble as penis, again as recorded, is singular. (The one plural use is when childrens’ and mens’ penises are coupled in a phrase.) That places Passionate Morrice’s use in sense 1 for me. That said, we are back in the 16th cent, and assuming (I would suggest correctly in these cases) double entendres. Who is to say what exactly the writer intended. However, the lexicographer must make such judgments and I stand by this one.

    Like

    • Patrick Collins August 4, 2017 / 6:39 pm

      As it is singular I assume you mean the GDoS sense 1, that this Passionate Morrice’s bawble is a penis, not your first sense in your paragraph?

      Like

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