Over a decade ago, I posted about the UK slang term oik (“Etym. obscure”), “Depreciatory schoolboy word for a member of another school; an unpopular or disliked fellow-pupil. Also gen., an obnoxious or unpleasant person; in weakened senses, a ‘nit-wit’, a ‘clot’.” Last night, as I was reading Anthony Powell to my wife (we’ve just started Books Do Furnish a Room, for which phrase see this post from last year; the setting is immediately after World War II), I hit this sentence (in the middle of a passage of heavily italicized babbling by Mona — sample: “We’re weaving about fairly close here, and I’ve got to scamper home this minute, because Jeff’s quite insane about punctuality”): “That erk will have to drive like stink if I’m not to be late.” My first thought was of oik, which would seem to fit equally well in this context, but there didn’t seem to be any way to connect the two in UK English (as opposed to the New Orleans or Brooklyn varieties), so I set it aside for investigation when I was up and about and rummaging in reference works. Now that that is the case, I can provide the OED entry (from 1972):

erk, n.
Etymology: Of obscure origin.
a. A naval rating.

b. An aircraftman, esp. an A.C.2.

c. transf. Used as a term of contempt.
1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 89 Erk, a rating. (Navy). Lower deck colloquialism for any ‘rank’ not that of an officer.
1928 T. E. Lawrence Let. 20 Jan. (1938) 570 Cranwell, which was a home from home, for the irks.
1940 Reader’s Digest May 31/2 The their mechanics erks, apparently a corruption of A.C., the abbreviation for aircraftsman.
1943 P. Brennan et al. Spitfires over Malta iii. 65 The erks came running up to tell us that..the 109 had been diving down.
1944 E. Partridge in 19th Cent. Apr. 182 An erk, now used for an A.C.2..meant an air mechanic. This odd word is, the writer believes, a shortened pronunciation of the italicised letters in air mechanic (perhaps in the form of ‘air mech’)… Some airmen less convincingly maintain that it comes from ‘lower-deck hand’.
1959 I. Opie & P. Opie Lore & Lang. Schoolchildren x. 175 Somebody they dislike..may be called..erk, gawp, kid.

Interesting that these very similar words of equally obscure origin are both first attested in 1925 (though I imagine a little rooting about in Google Books and databases could antedate that); I also call attention to Eric Partridge’s typically clueless approach to etymology.


  1. Ginger Yellow says:

    1925 E. Fraser & J. Gibbons Soldier & Sailor Words 89 Erk, a rating. (Navy). Lower deck colloquialism for any ‘rank’ not that of an officer.

    To my mind this points to, or at least might support the conjecture of, commonality of origin. I’m surprised the cited definition of oik doesn’t mention the class aspect of it. It heavily implies or imputes lower social class than the speaker (and derives much of its derogatory power from that). See, for instance, the Young Ones episode Bambi, in which the stereotypically posh “Footlights College” contestants chant: “Rah rah rah! We’re going to smash the oiks.”

  2. I had not heard of ‘erk’ before (I was born in 1939) but I am well acquainted with the word ‘oik’. I had always understood it to mean a ‘mannerless exhibitionist’. Some of the coarser dialects in England sound as if all the vowels come out as ‘oi’; so ‘line’ would be a homophone of ‘loin’. Just as folk etymology derives ‘barbarian’ from ‘bar, bar’, so ‘oiks’ are people who sound as if they are saying ‘oi, oi’ all the time. The football coaching for kids that takes place just outside my garden has come to be known in my household as ‘oikification classes’.

  3. The one time I heard the time “oik” used it was quite clearly a class-based derogatory term, I took it to be a reference to an East End accent since the guy telling the story quoted the person he was derogating with that accent. So it’s similar to “spic”.

  4. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Oik” most definitely has the implication “lower class.”

    The UK satirical magazine Private Eye has a comic strip following the merry antics of Cameron’s cabinet in whihc George Osborne is regularly referred to as “Oiky Osborne” on account of not having gone to Eton like everyone else … (merely St Paul’s School. I ask you!)

  5. As Piketty says, “The average income of the parents of Harvard students is currently about $450,000 [...] such a finding does not seem entirely compatible with the idea of selection based solely on merit.” Of course this is more embarrassing to Americans than the corresponding remark would be to Britons, with their long tradition of a class-based society.

    Harvard itself says: “In fact, approximately 70 percent of our students receive some form of aid, and about 60 percent receive need–based scholarships and pay an average of $12,000 per year. Twenty percent of parents pay nothing. No loans required.” Hmmmm.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    It was not always the case in Britain that riches necessarily correlated with class. Even I can remember a day when the concepts of genteel poverty and of oikish riches were not thought paradoxical.

    In those days we were even tempted to despise those colonials whose concepts of “class” seemed so nakedly – how can I put this – mercantile …

  7. On the other hand, this may be a false memory: here’s Tennyson moaning about it in “Maud” way back in 1855:

    And it was but a dream, yet it yielded a dear delight
    To have look’d, tho’ but in a dream, upon eyes so fair,
    That had been in a weary world my one thing bright;
    And it was but a dream, yet it lighten’d my despair
    When I thought that a war would arise in defence of the right,
    That an iron tyranny now should bend or cease,
    The glory of manhood stand on his ancient height,
    Nor Britain’s one sole God be the millionaire:
    No more shall commerce be all in all, and Peace
    Pipe on her pastoral hillock a languid note,
    And watch her harvest ripen, her herd increase,
    Nor the cannon-bullet rust on a slothful shore,
    And the cobweb woven across the cannon’s throat
    Shall shake its threaded tears in the wind no more.

    If I remember right it’s where his hero finally gets a grip and goes off to perish heroically in Crimea.

    “Nor Britain’s one sole God be the millionaire” is classic Tennyson. Sticks in the mind even thought you’d rather it didn’t, like a sort of Victorian poetic earworm.

  8. J. W. Brewer says:

    David E.: it was presumably easier to be posh without ready cash in the days when Eton didn’t cost £35,000/year to attend. Even in the U.S. (where there was always more class mobility and thus the class/cash nexus was tighter) there was for a long time in certain circles a certain haut-WASP ethic of “shabby genteel” and non-ostentatiousness which has notably (and perhaps terminally) declined within my own lifetime. This is possibly related to the notion that the most recent American elite is more self-consciously “meritocratic” (making $450K a year? evidence of merit) than its predecesors and thus predisposed to lack noblesse oblige and other cultural phenomena that were evolved to soften the hard edges of class distinction.

  9. The merchants-may-have-lots-of-dosh-and-be-able-to-acquire-a-certain-superficial-but-ultimately-specious-culture-but-when-it-comes-right-down-to-it-they-aren’t-really-quite-the-thing meme seems pretty widespread in cultures with a not too remote feudal past, for reasons which aren’t hard to see.

    Further, it’s always comforting to imagine that the rich aren’t really happy; or if they are, that they lack the refinement (or perhaps the sheer existential authenticity) to be really, truly, life-enhancingly happy like us.

    Speculation based on profound cultural ignorance, but: I wonder if what has sometimes seemed to me to a refreshingly straightforward approach to the joys of having lots of money in China owes anything to the fact that China ceased to be feudal a very long time ago. (On the other hand, merchants are right at the bottom in the Confucian scheme of things too …)

  10. Time to point to my favorite writer on social class, Michael O. Church, who analyzes the population of the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the developed world) into four social classes: the underclass, labor, gentry, and elite, in a way that is orthogonal to income (except for the underclass, who are poor by definition). Indeed, the last three classes are income ladders that people can and do climb in their lifetimes (he ranks the ladder steps from 4 to 1), and while the Labor ladder begins at a lower income than the Gentry ladder, which begins at a lower income than the Elite ladder, there are income equivalents across ladders. The people on them, however, differ in values and aspirations.

    Long, but very much worth reading; if you like this kind of thing, this will be the kind of thing you like.

  11. “we’ve just started Books Do Furnish a Room…”

    Take my advice and stop there, just imagine your own vision of what happens to all of the characters as they grow old. The drastic decline in quality with the last two volumes of the Dance is appalling, I know of nothing similar within belles lettres.

  12. Oh dear. We’ll certainly finish the series, having come this far, but I appreciate the warning.

  13. I suppose there’s no relation to “oi” as used in the excellent BBC Life On Mars (that’s where I get all my “English” English)–that seems also to be a term used in specific circumstances, kind of like “hey!” but for situations in which the person using it is particularly aggrieved or insulted.

  14. “Even I can remember a day when the concepts of genteel poverty and of oikish riches were not thought paradoxical.”

    This was a major theme in “Humphrey Clinker”. You see a lot of oblique references to the same tensions in Jane Austen.

    “In those days we were even tempted to despise those colonials whose concepts of “class” seemed so nakedly – how can I put this – mercantile …”

    The Roundhead-Cavalier, Yankee-Dixie divide. The Confederates did all they could to discredit the aristocratic side of the argument.

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    I don’t agree about any drastic decline in the last two volumes of DttMoT.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:


    True enough. It’s probably one of those perennial Golden Age themes – at some point in the not too remote past, men honoured true nobility, the nobility of character and breeding, that money cannot buy …

    No doubt Khakheperraseneb felt this keenly.

  17. “at some point in the not too remote past, men honoured true nobility, the nobility of character and breeding, that money cannot buy …”

    But tomorruh is anothuh day!

    John, that is a very interesting blog post. His categories parallel the classic caste categories laid out in the Bhagavad Gita in some ways.

  18. As Piketty says, “The average income of the parents of Harvard students is currently about $450,000 [...] such a finding does not seem entirely compatible with the idea of selection based solely on merit.”

    If he is serious about “average income” than it only takes one billionaire… If he (more conventionally) means “median income” than it is more of an argument, but then how Harvard is managing to give 60% of students needs-based scholarships?

  19. Average can mean arithmetic, geometric or harmonic mean, or median, or even mode, depending on context. It surely means median here.

  20. J. W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, suggests that median parental income for incoming Harvard freshman last fall was just a little bit above $125K (to be more precise, 53% of freshmen surveyed had or at least self-reported parental income >$125K). Maybe Piketty meant something other than median, or maybe he or his source was inaccurate and/or he misunderstood what the number from his source purported to represent. Or maybe the Crimson story is inaccurate.

  21. J. W. Brewer says:

    FWIW, the comparison in the Crimson piece to national median household income is probably bogus/overstated if the baseline not adjusted for age. Household income varies systematically by age, with the peak in the government stats being reasonably close to the age one might expect would be typical for parents of elite college freshmen.

  22. Narmitaj says:

    @ Shelley – there were “Oi!” bands in the UK at one time; according to that article “The prevalent ideology of the original Oi! movement was a rough brand of working-class rebellion. Lyrical topics included unemployment, workers’ rights, harassment by police and other authorities, and oppression by the government.” But I doubt there’s a connection to oik.

    Personally I would use “oi!” in mildly aggrieved response to some perceived slight or invasion of space, such as someone changing TV channels on me when I was watching a programme: “Oi! What do you think you’re doing?”

  23. J. W. Brewer says:

    Not sure if the etymology given here (“hoy” with the h dropped, because Cockney) is correct, but I like the anecdote that it was uttered by royalty as early as the 1930′s.

  24. @John Cowan: The usage of “average” for anything other than the mean seems to have been in decline for quite some time. One of my family members is a collector of books explaining mathematical topics at an elementary level, and I’ve paged through quite a number of them over the years. In older books (the famous How to Lie With Statistics from 1954 being an example that springs to mind), there is quite frequently an admonition make sure you know which meaning of “average” is being used in a given context. By Aha! Insight (1976), the discussion seems to assume that the default meaning of “average” is the mean, although the word is sometimes used for other things. By the time I was in school, a little later than that, we were taught that “average” unambiguously meant the mean, and the newer books tend to bear this out. There’s no discussion of possible different meanings of “average”; the equivalent modern discussions are framed as, “Sometimes other quantities can be more useful than the average.”

  25. I think that’s true for elementary popular works, but not for technical ones, in which average remains a word for any statistical measure of central tendency. “If you can only give one number, use the median; if you can give two, use the mean plus or minus the standard deviation.”

  26. @John Cowan: In more advanced works, you can indeed have different kinds of “averages”; however, I would still say the mean is “the average.” Moreover, I would not consider something like the median or the mode “an average” even in this generalized context. “An average” would need to have some kind of weighting scheme and account for all of the data. This does not mean that the data has to be simply summed according their weights; geometric as well as higher and more complicated means are allowed. However, the procedures used to determine the median and the mode do not fit this scheme.

    (A few years ago, I was trying to prove a theorem about the most general “sum” you could get by using different kinds of averages to evaluate a divergent but bounded infinite sum. I hit a snag somewhere and set it aside, and I had forgotten about the project until just now.)

  27. J. W. Brewer says:

    It is quite easy to find non-technical people in non-technical contexts using “average” to mean median, if you e.g. google for statements to the effect that (outside Lake Wobegon) 50% of the population is by definition of below-average income, intelligence, attractiveness etc. Sometimes this attacts peevers who seem to think that average by definition only means mean, so aha!. My own native-speaker intuition (although this obviously could be affected by my age etc.) is that “average” in non-technical use is ambiguous as between mean and median (with context sometimes but not always sufficient to disambiguate), with many people hazy enough on the conceptual distinction between the two that they may not be immediately able to clarify which they meant. If in fact younger generations have been prescriptively taught in school that “average” unambiguously means mean rather than taught the difference between mean and median, with the desirability of avoiding “average” due to its ambiguity, that just shows that K-12 education is often run by prescriptivist idiots. But we knew that already.

  28. In the Nigel Molesworth books (1950s) the “oiks” are students at the comprehensive school (state school), where they paradoxically receive a much better education than is offered at St. Custard’s, while being looked down on for their lack of social standing (St.Custard’s being a long way down the list of acceptable public schools doesn’t have much else to look down on).

  29. As Piketty says, “The average income of the parents of Harvard students is currently about $450,000 [...] such a finding does not seem entirely compatible with the idea of selection based solely on merit.”

    It’s entirely compatible with merit-based selection (if merit means academic ability). It’s just that being from a wealthy background makes it much easier to acquire merit because you go to better schools and have more opportunities and support.

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