From Michael Specter’s recent New Yorker profile of British entrepreneur/adventurer Richard Branson, creator of the Virgin empire (Virgin Megastores, Airlines, Limousines, Games, Brides…), which began in 1970 with Virgin Records:
His next indictment, under the 1889 Indecent Advertisements Act, was in 1977, when the Sex Pistols released their only album, “Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols,” on the Virgin Records label. ” ‘Bollocks’ was considered an unforgivably rude word,” Branson said. The playwright and lawyer John Mortimer successfully defended him by producing an expert witness to demonstrate that the word “bollocks” was derived from an Anglo-Saxon term and could be used to refer to a priest. The witness even turned up in court wearing clerical garb. The judge, to his dismay, was forced to dismiss the charges, saying, “Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty.”
I love everything about this except the magazine’s insistence on putting album titles in quotation marks.
…old Mortimer was no slouch and he called upon the Reverend Professor James Kingsley to give evidence, (due to him being an expert).
He said it was used in records from the year 1000 and in Anglo Saxon times it meant a small ball. The term was also used to describe an orchid. He said that in the 1961 publication of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang, he had not taken into account the use of the word bollocks in the Middle Ages. He said it appears in Medieval bibles and veterinary books. In the bible it was used to describe small things of an appropriate shape. For instance bollocks could also be traced to a pulley-block at the head of a sailing topmast, otherwise known as a bullock block.
He said that the word also appears in place names without stirring any sensual desires in the local communities. Mortimer said that this would be similar to a city being called Maidenhead – that didn’t seem to cause the locals in the vicinity any problems.
Mr. Kingsley said that Partridge in his books wrote that bollocks remained in colloquial use down through the centuries and was also used to denote a clergyman in the last century. ”The word has been used as a nickname for clergymen. Clergymen are known to talk a good deal of rubbish and so the word later developed the meaning of nonsense,” he said. ”They became known for talking a great deal of bollocks, just as old balls or baloney also come to mean testicles, so it has twin uses in the dictionary”.
Mr. Ritchie asked him if he was just an expert on the word bollocks to which Kingsley replied that he was an expert on the English language who felt he could speak with authority on the derivation of a word such as bollocks. Mr. Ritchie asked Kingsley if the words fuck, cunt and shit also appeared in the Dictionary of Slang from which he had quoted. Kingsley replied ”if the word fuck does not appear in the dictionary it should.”
I had no idea, by the way, that the word bollocks caused such a stir at the time. As an American, I considered it just one of those quaint mother-country expressions like bonnet for ‘hood’ and toad-in-the-hole; I probably had the vague idea that well-bred Brits went around saying jovially “Oh, bollocks, old chap!” I assumed that the album was sold in brown paper bags because it was, you know, punk rock. Three decades later, my eyes are opened.