A Patrick Swayze insult

On April Fool’s Day, I ran across this item, which purports to be a long-winded rant about common English usage errors (that aren’t really errors). A close read reveals it to be satire. And one thing it does in keeping with the genre of such pieces is begin with a long windup—what I call “the burnishing of the credentials.”

To poke fun at the author, I wrote, “And somehow, this gormless berk can hear apostrophes in the spoken word.” Let’s unpack that epithet, which is British English.

The first part, “gormless,” is explained thus by Oxford Living Dictionaries:

Mid 18th century (originally as gaumless): from dialect gaum ‘understanding’ (from Old Norse gaumr ‘care, heed’) + -less

That’s straightforward enough. It makes a superb addition to any noun meaning “idiot” or “fool,” with the added satisfaction of being in Norse code.

As to the second part, “berk,” it’s a type of Cockney rhyming slang. You’ll be familiar with this if you’re a fan of British comedy. Take a look at this skit by The Two Ronnies. In the sermon, the minister says, “A poor man who had no trouble and strife.” (wife) “She’d run off with a tea leaf.” (thief) “He now lived with his eldest bricks and morter, Mary.” (daughter)

This is the usual way rhyming slang works. “Frog and toad” means “road.” Once you’re wise to this game, context will usually point you straight to the meaning. “I’d go out for a pint, but I’m short bees and honey.” If you guessed what rhymes with “honey,” you’re on the money.

Not all rhyming slang follows this pattern. The more obscure terms have a story behind them, like “didn’t ought” meaning port wine. (Polite ladies, offered a second or third glass, should demur by saying “didn’t ought.”)

“Berk” is of this sort. It’s a truncation of Berkeley Hunt, a fox hunt traditionally held at Berkeley Castle, in Gloucestershire. As “hunt” rhymes with “cunt,” Bob’s your uncle.

Back to the title of this post, try your savvy: “He wants 800 quid for his old beater. The bloke’s Patrick Swayze.”

8 thoughts on “A Patrick Swayze insult

    • Mededitor April 3, 2018 / 12:36 pm

      At a cost of more than 300 Euro, that’s quite a stretch.

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  1. gwilym williams April 3, 2018 / 9:09 am

    Although even Partridge acknowledges a 1930s date for Berkeley or Berkshire Hunt and rhyming slang for cunt I am not entirely convinced for a couple of reasons. Indeed, I think that this might be an early back-formation along with examples such as posh (port out, starboard home), fuck (for unlawful carnal knowledge) and so on. Posh, of course, just means money or in the money, while fuck needs no fucking introduction here.

    Initially, the pronunciation is wrong. Neither Berkshire nor Berkeley are pronounced to rhyme with lurk /ˈbɜːrk/ which is the rhyme for berk. Both are pronounced to rhyme with lark /ˈbɑːrk/. Given that this is an oral tradition, it strikes me unlikely that a Cockney pronunciation of Berkshire/Berkeley would follow the /ˈbɜːrk/ (lurk) sound given how much harder it is to articulate /ˈbɜːrk/ without the ‘r’ in the context of Berkshire or Berkeley. Moreover, your average Londoner would have been aware of the correct pronunciation of Berkeley on account of Berkeley Square. This is linguistics and I’m only an archaeologist so out of my comfort zone, but for my money this is pushing it.

    However, ‘berk’ is also an old tramping or Romany word – which Partridge also gives – first evidenced at the end of the Regency to early Victorian period, if I recall correctly, as the word for a tit, or more politely a breast. Given the gentle nature of the word berk – it is by no stretch of the imagination as hard an insult as cunt; ‘You tit!’ is of course a perfectly acceptable affectionate term mirroring ‘You berk!’. I wouldn’t say to someone ‘Don’t act the cunt!’ in any but rather particular circumstances but I would be comfortable saying ‘Don’t act the berk!’ even – particularly – to one of my kids. I remain sceptical of the Berkshire/Berkeley Hunt origin as it just seems so pat and would suggest that more research needs to be done on the earlier word and its potential as an origin rather than immediately assuming the later.

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    • Mededitor April 3, 2018 / 12:34 pm

      An interesting argument, although it should be noted that “Berkeley” has nothing to do with the rhyme in question – the play is off “hunt.” What makes this one notable is the slang playing off an unspoken word. Although now out of date, an Australian insult for an American used to be “seppo,” derived from septic tank –> Yank. This is the type of rhyming slang in question, which is unlike the usual, e.g., “table and chairs” for stairs.

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      • Patrick Collins April 3, 2018 / 9:36 pm

        I thought the “usual” Cockney rhyming slang was that where the first word of the phrase was the only one used. The reason for the slang was to be able to have a dickey with your china about making some bread when you’re Brahms without getting barney from the Sweeney.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Mark Wooding April 5, 2018 / 10:39 am

        The problem isn’t getting to `Berkeley hunt’ from `cunt’, but rather the second step of getting from there to the monosyllabic `berk’, with the vowel change, rather than something sounding more like `bark’.

        Also, stairs are more conventionally apples (and pears).

        Liked by 1 person

    • Patrick Collins April 3, 2018 / 11:39 pm

      As the OED has the first source of the etymology as its earliest definition, I think we might be doubtful of that explanation. It is given as from “Lars Porsena, or the Future of Swearing and Improper Language” by Robert Graves.

      I can’t find a version instantly online but a discussion on a forum in 2011 led to this quote from the book:

      *************************************************************************************************************

      Then on “Note to New Edition” on page 94 of the 1929 edition Grave cites a letter from a Mr. Fred Hale of the Nelson Inn, Merryvale, Worcester:

      “You are not right. Aristotle to the public-house mind means: Aristotle=up the bottle=bottle and glass=up the x (Mr. Wilde is a y…). There are other examples of rhyming slang in connection with words of abuse. E.g.: ‘Gehout you Berk.’ Berk=Berkeley=Berkeley Hunt=z.”
      *************************************************************************************************************
      http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/3291/P15/

      Worcester is 45 miles by modern roads from Berkeley, the home of the Berkeley Hunt. (Both are 136 miles from Bow in London, centre of Cockneydom.) It sounds to me like a personal grudge by someone who hated the hunt (and why not?) or perhaps, at a stretch, a Severnside rhyming slang.

      Though perhaps he was a Cockney, if Mr Hale were a true Worcesterman why not use beetle-yudded or yer great mawsey?

      The x, y and z intrigue me, arse, prick(?) and cunt, the Cartesian co-ordinates of organic swearing?

      One use of “birkie” in Lowland Scotch is “applied in derision to a very young man who is lively but not over-wise.”

      “Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
      Wha struts and stares and a’ that.”
      Burns “A Man’s a Man”.
      https://archive.org/stream/dictionaryoflowl00mackrich#page/8/mode/2up

      The OED has 1724 as its first example of “birkie”, plenty of time for alteration and migration.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. banivani April 4, 2018 / 7:14 am

    Oh my Gooood I find rhyming slang so challenging. I’m sure it prevents Alzheimers, like crosswords and sudokus, so it’s probably good for me, but I’m so lost. Can somebody just post all the answers here please and save me googling for an hour.

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