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.

I was wondering about the “priest” business, which the OED says nothing about, but fortunately I found Gavin Corder’s Blog, which last September had a detailed post on this very subject:

…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.


  1. I’m not sure how well-known the word bugger is in the USA, but for those of you who don’t know, it is a slang way of referring to a person when it’s a noun, which depending on the adjective before it, can be a term of endearment or of denigration.
    Originally though, a bugger was a sodomite, and although the word is not often used in that sense anymore, buggery is always a reference to sodomy.
    Anyway, that leads me to my anecdote.
    When he was Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, who was an Oxford scholar and renowned Aussie larrikin with a love of the colloquial, travelled to Japan for talks and said something like “We want you to stop playing funny buggers with trade”.
    The Japanese translator, however, translated that as “We want you to stop playing laughing homosexuals on trade”.
    Not sure what the outcome of those particular trade talks were, but considering Australia exports more product to Japan than any other nation, things must have gone down reasonably well.

  2. Rupert Goodwins says

    In similar vein (and from a similar time), the ancient planet-maker from Magrathea in Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is called Slartybardfast because Adams wanted him to have a very rude name but had to modify it for broadcasting. Adams is on the record as saying he started with Shittybollockfuck or similar, and iteratively modified it until he got something that was reminiscent of the original but wouldn’t cause the universe to end if transmitted.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    This American knows what “bugger” means, though I think of it more as a verb than a noun. Either way, it isn’t in my active vocabulary.
    I too did not realize how obscene “bollocks” is (or was). I think of it in the secondary sense of “nonsense”. I was not even aware of its primary meaning, though I guessed it immediately upon reading that the word is obscene.
    It may be just me, but I find it difficult to judge the nuances of just how offensive is a word in another dialect. The classic example is “bloody”. To my ear this is a quaint archaism, but I understand it to be considered extremely offensive in British English. Is this still true? In any case, I avoid it even in circumstances where I might be tempted to use a quaint archaism. Probably just as well to withstand that temptation anyway.

  4. I know bugger is a bad word, but because it isn’t seen so in the US, it’s become my swear word of choice.
    Oh, and it’s Slartibartfast.

  5. “We want you to stop playing funny buggers with trade”.
    Dude, give the poor interpreter a break!

  6. Dude, give the poor interpreter a break!
    As an interpreter, I second that. Hawke is definitely the villain in this story.

  7. Can’t see the forest for the uncrossed “t”
    I hear you, certain stuff bugs the heck out of me. I won’t eat at a new local restaurant here in Victorville because the sign says TWO GUY’S grill.
    The curse of the English major I tell you!
    Cool post, I llike the sex pistols and I’ve often thought about that album title.

  8. Yes, it was regarded as rude. I love the quotes too.
    I was training as a solicitor (an articled clerk) at a law firm at that time near Oxford Circus, and right next door to us was a one-man firm that represented people from the music industry, including the Sex Pistols. I remember we saw a lot of him, because when a client has to swear an affidavit, it’s conventional for a different law firm to witness the signature, so when clients of theirs had to swear a document for them, they would come to our offices, and vice versa. I recall this firm of solicitors getting a fax – or more likely a telex in those days – from the Japanese music company representing the Sex Pistols with the text “Please explain word bollocks”, after “Never mind the Bollocks…” appeared.

  9. I was just reading an article the other day in a British paper where “bollocks” was asterisked – “bo***cks” and the word “bitch” was printed in its entirety. This would certainly strike an American as odd. LH, I hope you realize that other words that Americans seem to throw around without thinking too much but are much ruder in the UK include “wanker”, “twat”, “poofter” and of course “to shag”. Actually “twat” probably is still rude in some parts of America, but it seems to have completely gone out of fashion, at least in the North-East. I can’t remember the last time I heard an American use that word. In fact my Philly born wife had never learnt the meaning of that word until she was in her 30s, and I wouldn’t consider her particularly sheltered.

  10. Oh, and I could have added “minge” – which I don’t think most Americans understand at all, (and not to be confused with “minging” pronounced with a hard “g” and meaning “dirty, smelly” or “minger”, an individual who is minging) and “fanny” which is also ruder in the UK, and doesn’t mean what Americans think it does. Clearly I hang around with the wrong sort of British people.

  11. mollymooly says

    Re “bloody”: the wikipedia article is quite good. A humorous sign of the same type as “you don’t have to be crazy to work here but it helps” is common in British pubs, reading “no bloody swearing”. Many [all?] swear-words are less offensive used metaphorically or as an expletive than used literally, so it’s striking that “bloody” should remain taboo when the literal meaning of “bloody” had become obscure.
    Re “bollocks” I remember a British comedian in the mid 80s on a British chat-show [~talk show, evening, not late-night]:
    Host “People have criticised you for swearing too much?”
    Comic: “Bollocks!”
    [laughter from the audience]
    It’s convenient to have words that are taboo enough to be funny, but not so taboo as to be unusable. The quip would probably not get much of a laugh now.

  12. You can read excerpts from the “Bollocks” court case transcript here.

  13. John Emerson says

    When I was growing up (ca. 1955 in the American Midwest), “bugger”, pronounced like “bug”, was an affectionate diminutive for kids, pets, etc. Pronounced “booger” it meant snot in your nose.

  14. I live in Rhode Island and I hear the word twat with some frequency, often in the compound insult “twatwaffle.”

  15. Is historical lexicography really a defense? If I understand correctly, it seems that the prosecutor opened his case up to this by trying to show that the dictionary only gave an obscene anatomical sense, which Prof. Kingsley could then disprove. What if he had instead tried to show that all then current senses met the legal test of “deprave and corrupt”? Like bullshit, which has nothing to do with excrement, but maybe can’t be printed without giving offense. Or does “the Indecent Advertising act of 1899” use some other test?
    Obscenity laws are by definition subjective and selectively enforced (Mortimer: “… why a word which has
    been dignified by writers of the Middle Ages in the translation of the Bible to Dylan Thomas and George Orwell … should be singled out as criminal because it is on a record sleeve by the Sex Pistols. It was because it was The Sex Pistols and not Donald Duck or Kathleen Ferrier that the prosecution was brought …”), which may well be a damning argument against them.
    While we’re in court, what about the two meanings of testis?

  16. Bollocks does have a U.S. version, namely bollix, which (with up) means “screw up”. The spelling generally hides the etymology.

  17. Yes, it was many years before I realized the connection.

  18. michael farris says

    “I hope you realize that other words that Americans seem to throw around without thinking too much but are much ruder in the UK”
    Yeah, ‘wanker’ isn’t exactly a compliment in the US but it’s not likely to start fistfights either.
    On the other hand, it seems that c*nt is nowhere near as rude in British usage as it is in the US.

  19. Unfit for Publication says

    RE: Bollix.
    Not really a US version, exclusicly at least. Doubt you’ll find many Irish people unfamilliar with it through such uses as: Ye little bollix ye!

  20. Unfit for Publication says

    Bollocks! (Good thing it’s the item of discussion or that would just look coarse, vulger et-bloody-c.) That should read exclusively.

  21. marie-lucie says

    About the plight of the Japanese translator confused by Mr. Hawke’s colorful language:
    I bet that Mr Hawke is a monolingual English speaker, and as such, does not realize that colloquial vocabulary and expressions are likely to be misunderstood by foreigners who have had enough trouble learning a standard version of his language, let alone becoming familiar with the nuances of every national dialect. Many people think that vocabulary which has down-to-earth, slap-on-the-back, etc connotations is simpler to understand than more neutral, intellectual vocabulary, because they have learned the first one informally and the second formally, through schooling and books. Of course this is not the case at all. Politicians who are going to be communicating with their counterparts in other lands through interpreters should be warned ahead of time to use fairly formal language, since informal usage can often be misinterpreted.

  22. Richard Hershberger says

    “On the other hand, it seems that c*nt is nowhere near as rude in British usage as it is in the US.”
    Indeed. I can’t speak to British English, but in American English “cunt” is very taboo. I know women who wear “bitch” as a badge of honor, but would consider being called a “cunt” unforgiveable.

  23. This post underlines a serious problem in the UK, where we swear so much that we’re in danger of running out of offensive words and of being offended by anything at all.

  24. Many people think that vocabulary which has down-to-earth, slap-on-the-back, etc connotations is simpler to understand than more neutral, intellectual vocabulary, because they have learned the first one informally and the second formally, through schooling and books.
    When I was teaching English in Taiwan I quite foolishly had the idea of using the sports page of a newspaper as teaching material, just because it’s unintimidating and “down-to-earth”. I was far wrong. First, because few people in Taiwan have the interest in sports that many Americans do. Second, because each sport has its technical vocabulary. But also because sportwriters (even more then than now) use an arcane language full of cliches, dead metaphors, references to earlier sportswriters, ad hoc coinages, and so on.
    Writing about recipes and food, though, was dynamite. I rarely met anyone over there without a passion for food. It’s not a yuppie thing at all.

  25. Terry Collmann says

    The curious thing about “bollix” in Irish English (apart from its metaphorical meaning being “fool” or “contemptible person” rather than “rubbish”, which is the metaphorical use of “bollocks” in British English) is that the word is singular, not plural – which confused me no end when I heard a young Irish lady tell the following joke in Dublin:
    What’s 12 inches long and hangs from a bollix?
    Daniel O’Donnell’s tie.
    (Note for non-British Isles readers: Daniel O’Donnell is a syrupy Irish ballad singer hugely popular with females over 55)

  26. Richard J says

    “Cunt”‘s an odd one. It’s virtually never used to refer to the lady bits, and it’s used very rarely to insult a woman – calling a man a cunt to his face is Defcon 1 in the insult provocation scale. The sotto voce implication is that the man is basically evil in human form. Oddly, calling someone a ‘twat’ isn’t much more than a slightly stronger way of calling them a doofus or twit.

  27. Dude, give the poor interpreter a break!
    Liar’s P*ker has a good two-nations-divided-by-a-common-language moment. An American investment banker asks a British colleague for his opinion of Company X.
    “X? They’re on their uppers,” the Brit replies.
    “Aha! Sounds good!” thinks the Yank, believing this to be synonymous with “on the up and up”, and invests heavily; much heartache and recrimination follows the inevitable crash.
    “On their uppers” means, of course, that they are so desperately poor that they have worn away the soles of their boots and are walking around on the remaining parts – the uppers.

  28. The use of “bollix” in the US leans heavily toward the verb form. Unlike the similar term “botch”, which can appear as either “botch” or “botch up” almost interchangeably, “bollix” tends to be followed by “up” (like “screw up” or “fuck up”, which are distinct from “screw” and “fuck”).
    In the Western US, there was a high-end department store chain called “Bullock’s”, named after founder John G. Bullock. So very nice ladies used to go to Bullock’s on a regular basis on the Left Coast.

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