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The Origins and Common Usage of British Swear-words

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Please Note:

This entry discusses the etymology and application of a selection of words that, to varying degrees, can be considered vulgar or offensive. As a necessity, this entails the use of said words, and it is strongly advised that, should you find such words distressing or inappropriate, you do not read on beyond this point.
For the rest of you, there now follows an informative and hopefully educational entry on a potentially controversial topic - bad language...

Mind Your Language

etymology (n) an account of the origins and the developments in meaning of a word.
Concise Oxford Dictionary.

Once limited to blasphemy, 'bad language' has evolved over many thousands of years to represent both the lowest and the highest forms of human expression. Such words can cause the greatest offence if used casually and repeatedly, at an inappropriate time or place, or in the wrong company. Yet often, a well-timed swear-word can make people laugh. Among friends, almost any word might be considered acceptable, while even the mildest of curses might be distressing if heard coming from the mouth of a child. Even something as simple as the type of voice a person has can affect how the word is received. Should a British Royal swear it might be considered witty, while the exact same phrase coming from an East-end garage mechanic might be interpreted as crude and base. And words that might once have been commonplace are nowadays considered entirely unacceptable.

The Atlantic - The Great Divide

Two nations divided by a common language.
Oscar Wilde.

With swearing, context is everything. Words that are in common use in the UK are indecipherable to American ears, and vice versa. It takes more than just a simple 'bloody' (a corruption of 'By your Lady', a religious exclamation from the Middle Ages') to swear like a Brit. Most British swear-words have a history longer than that of the United States itself, evolving out of even older European languages such as Norse, High German and Latin (hence British phrases like 'a stream of Anglo-Saxon' or, most commonly, 'pardon my French'). For instance, the word 'ass' in American-English, meaning buttocks or anus, evolved from the British word 'arse'1. Before WW1, people in southern English would pronounce the word 'ass', meaning donkey, with a long 'a', making it indistinguishable from 'arse' in spoken English. Considered only moderately vulgar in the UK, it can be put to a number of different, often contradictory uses...

  • The phrase 'can't be arsed' signifies apathy or a lack of enthusiasm, yet to 'get your arse in gear' means to become organised or to 'hurry up.

  • 'Arse over tit'/'tip', 'arse over apex', 'arse up' or 'arse about' are all phrases which describe a spectacular prattfall or clumsy action. The word 'prattfall', incidentally, also means 'arse over tit'; 'pratt' being an old word for 'arse' that has come to lose its meaning over the years. The word 'pratt' is still, however, used to this day to mean a fool.

  • A 'Smart arse' (signifying someone who is too clever for their own good) can be used either affectionately or to cause offence, while 'Silly arse' merely means a fool. To 'arse about' can also mean to play the fool. A 'short-arse', however, is someone with short legs.

A less-offensive term for 'posterior' in the UK is 'bum', which in America might be referred to as 'butt'. It made its first appearance in around the 14th Century, and was put to good use by Shakespeare: In Measure for Measure, Escalus asks Pompey what his second name is. 'Bum, Sir' replies Pompey. To which Escalus replies 'Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you; so that in the beastliest sense you are Pompey the Great.' (They don't tell 'em like that any more - thank goodness). However, in America the word as a noun has come to means tramp or hobo, while as a verb to mean 'scrounge' or borrow'.

Body Talk - Male

Variations on 'arse-up' include 'balls-up', which tends to be used to describe when things go badly, as in 'that meeting was a total balls-up'. A 'ballsy' person would be feisty or determined, while describing someone as 'not having the balls' to do something would mean they're cowardly, a clear masculine-reassurance insult. In America - specifically American gangster movies starring Joe Pesci - the phrase 'busting my balls' equates to annoying or nagging someone. This highlights another difference between American and British usage; in Britain the phrase is used to mean 'trying very hard at something' in much the same way as a Brit might say 'busting a gut'.

A stronger British term for testicles, which rhymes with 'frollocks', is probably worth a guide entry of its own. To talk this word would mean to talk rubbish or to be misinformed, while to say something is 'the dog's...' (often gentrified as 'the mutt's nuts') would suggest it is the best there is. Legend has it that in the 1950s, construction kits like Meccano would be sold in boxes of various sizes. The list of contents which came with the standard size box would be headed 'Box, Standard' (which elided into 'bog standard' when spoken) and the larger box was the 'Box, Deluxe' which was spoonerised to create the phrase 'The Dog's B******s'. This is such a satisfying explanation for two common forms of British English usage that one really wants it to be true.

The word's probable derivation is so non-vulgar as to be quite amusing. Specifically, a bollock is a pulley-block at the head of a topmast, otherwise known as a bullock block. This was used to great effect to prevent the Sex Pistols' album Never Mind the Bollocks from being censored. A refreshing example of the legal system grabbing hold of the wrong reason and using it to do the right thing.

  • A 'B******ing' on the other hand, is a severe dressing down or ticking off. The reason for this is mercifully unclear.

  • Brits will say 'b******-naked' while Americans will say 'butt-naked'. Why Brits verify nudity from the front and Americans verify it from the rear is anyone's guess.

Although the phrase 'cock-up' might appear to have come about in a similar way to 'balls-up', its origins are actually in beer making. If the batch went bad, they turned the cock (ie tap, or faucet) up to drain the barrel. However, the word 'cock', a Middle and Old English word, is one of the many vulgarities for the penis. In London, though, Cockneys appear to have both terms in mind when they say 'Wotcher cock', which comes from the term 'cock sparrow' (pronounced 'sparrah'). It is a general term for a man, although 'cock sparrow' was usually saved for small boys. It has been used for about 300 years.

A more childish term for penis is 'willy' or 'willie'. This British English word had audiences sniggering in the aisles of cinemas throughout the UK when the first trailers were shown for the film Free Willy. On the other hand it is tempting to wonder whether or not the celebrated actor and rapper Will Smith had taken advice on the way in which British audiences might interpret the title of his 1997 album Big Willie Style (though it's unlikely he would actually have objected to the misunderstanding). Willie is essentially an innocent playground word, and there was delighted laughter across the land when commentator Brian Johnson referred to two players during a cricket match, pointing out that 'The bowler's Holding, the batsman's Willey'.

Body Talk - Female

The word 'fanny' in America is, like, 'bum', mildly vulgar, meaning 'buttocks'. In the UK, however, it is rarely used in polite conversation as it would be interpreted as meaning 'vagina'. If someone is being vague or indecisive, they can be said to be 'fannying about'. In the 1970s, there was a pioneering all-female American rock band called Fanny. They were originally called Wild Honey (which is almost as suggestive) and they adopted their new name on the recommendation of ex-Beatle George Harrison, without being aware of the British usage. In 1970, Fanny covered Cream's Badge, and this song earned it air-play for their self-titled debut LP. The girl's name, 'Fanny', does of course result in chuckles on either side of the Atlantic. Anthony Trollope's mother, Frances, wrote a highly critical book called The Domestic Manners of the Americans. The Americans were rather non-plussed since they simply could not believe that the 'Fanny Trollope' was not a pseudonym. There is also the phrase 'sweet Fanny Adams' which is sometimes abbreviated to 'sweet FA'. Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old child who was murdered and dismembered in Alton, Hampshire, in 1867. Her grave is still there. At around the same time, the British Navy started preserving chopped mutton in tins, and the sailors - always an uncouth lot - described this as 'sweet Fanny Adams' which eventually came to mean 'nothing of any good at all'. An unhappy epitaph to a nasty story.

One of the most offensive terms for female genitalia, the c-word, is the ultimate four-letter word in British English, the final media taboo. The first use of the word in a UK TV drama was in Mosley, a drama about the rise and fall of the British Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. This was first shown on Channel 4 in the late 1990s. The word is also the title of a novel by Stewart Home, published in 1999, about the breakdown of a writer as he rather badly loses the plot, both literally and creatively.

The word has Germanic cognates including old Norse (kunta), middle-Dutch (Kunte) and possibly High German (Kotze meaning prostitute), which all point to a pre-historic germanic ancestor kunton. A Latin word, Kuntus, meaning wedge, might also have been an influence. The word would appear to have entered the English language during the early Middle Ages; in 1230AD, both Oxford and London boasted districts called 'Gropecunte Lane', in reference to the prostitutes that worked there. The Oxford lane was later renamed the slightly less-contentious Magpie Lane, while London's version retained a sense of euphemism when it was changed to 'Threadneedle Street'. Records do not show whether it was a decision of intentional irony that eventually placed the Bank of England there.

The word has good Shakespearian usage, though even he was a little subtle. Hamlet asks whether he can lie in Ophelia's lap, 'I mean, my head upon your lap?' and then says 'Do you think I meant country matters?' and follows up with 'It is a fair thought to lie between maids' legs'. Ophelia answers non-committally to most of this. A slightly more bawdy use of the word appears in Carry On Don't Lose Your Head, one of a series of British comedy films of the 1960s, in which actress Joan Sims refers to her husband, 'The Count', deliberately pronouncing the word 'Count' with just enough room to be (mis)interpreted while still getting past the British film censors.

There is a story in Oxford that one of the religious societies in England's oldest university was the Cambridge University New Testament Society, though that has the whiff of urban legend about it. And more recently, there is a rumour that the former Newcastle Polytechnic had got to the stage of printing their letterheads with the name City University, Newcastle upon Tyne before noticing what they were doing.2

Other Universities can also be hotbeds of a certain inspired madness. Late in 2000, feminists in Penn State in the USA held a 'C***fest' with the stated objective of reclaiming the word, which, according to Inga Muscio in her book C***: A Declaration of Independence, stems from words that were 'either titles of respect for women, priestesses and witches, or derivatives of goddesses' names'. (Though how that squares with what the dictionaries say is not entirely clear). Not surprisingly, the local community did not see the event in quite the same way.

The abusive term 'Berk' also derives from this word, being cockney rhyming slang, short for 'Berkshire Hunt'.

An alternative to this word is the t-word, which comes from an Old Norse word for cut or slit. Pronounced to rhyme with 'hat', or, in some regions, 'pot', it is widely used in the UK as a slightly more expressive form of 'twit'3 or 'idiot', and it seems likely that many of the people using it do not know what it means, or at least choose not to think about it. They are in good company. Robert Browning clearly didn't when he wrote the following lines in Pippa Passes:

Then owls and bats
Cowls and twats
Monks and nuns in a cloister's moods,
Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry.

However it is probable that he was misled by a poem printed around 1660 when that well known and scurrilous poet Anon stated:

They talked of his having a Cardinal's Hat,
They'd send him as soon an Old Nun's Twat.

Which appears to be why Browning thought it meant a piece of nun's clothing, specifically a wimple; and is a clear lesson to us all to check words we don't understand in a dictionary, and not to infer meaning from context.

A Scottish alternative to these words, little-known south of the border, is 'fud'.


Although this sounds like the most Anglo-Saxon of all Anglo-Saxon words, the origin of the f-word meaning 'sexual intercourse' is actually rather obscure. There is a legend that the old name for the crime of rape was 'Forced Unlawful Carnal Knowledge', and part of the punishment was that an abbreviation of the crime would be branded on the perpetrators head. Hence, people with 'F. U. C. K.' on their head were known to be rapists. A similar story is that during the time of the plague when it was necessary to increase the population a royal injunction was issued telling the common folk to 'Fornicate Under Command of the King.' These, however, would appear to be acronyms intentionally spelling out an existing word rather than new creations themselves.

Eric Partridge, a famous etymologist, has suggested that the Old German 'ficken' or 'fucken', meaning 'to strike or penetrate', was related to the Latin words for pugilist, puncture, and prick4 , or to the Latin 'futuere' which had the slang meaning 'to copulate'. There are also clearer links to Dutch where 'fokken' means breed and is applied to cattle, and to a Swedish dialect word 'fokken' which has the English meaning. Certainly, all the earliest uses of the word in English came via Scotland, suggesting a Scandinavian origin5.

Records from as early as 1278 identify a man called John Le-Fucker (which, considering people often had names to do with their occupations, makes the mind boggle), and it was certainly in common usage by the 16th Century, appearing in a dictionary, John Florio's A World of Words, in 1598. By the 18th century, it had became a vulgar term; It was even banned from the Oxford English Dictionary.

DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (written in 1928) was the first serious (ie non-pornographic) book in English to use the word accurately and in context and was famously banned for over thirty years. In 1960, US publishers Grove Press won a court case permitting it to publish the book in America, meaning it was the first time the word had been legally used in print, while three years later, the ban was overturned in a British court in the infamous 'Lady Chatterly trial'. American author Norman Mailer used the euphemism 'fug' in The Naked and the Dead, and when famous wit Dorothy Parker met him at a party, she said, 'So you're the young man who can't spell f***?'

It has been recognised as one of the most versatile words in the English language, and can be put to use as an expletive, an adjective, a noun or a verb, as demonstrated in an email circular that has been widely distributed over the years.

Poet Laureate Philip Larkin used the word in the opening lines of one of his poems, writing one of those sentences which is simple, lucid and which cannot possibly be expressed in any other way:

'They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,
They may not mean to, but they do'

Kenneth Tynan the enfant terrible of mid 20th century British cultural criticism was the first person to use the word on British TV, on the BBC no less, during a live discussion programme, sparking a major and significant debate in the British press. Everyone could see what the articles were about, their eyes were drawn by the asterisks.

The word is often shortened by Brits to just 'Eff', as in the phrase 'effing an blinding' to describe someone who swears a lot. ('Blinding' probably refers to an archaic usage 'God Blind Me' still heard in 'Cor Blimey').

The F of the f-word also appears in various quasi-military acronyms most of which can be traced back to and may even have been spawned by the second world war. There is 'FUBBED up' - 'F****d Up Beyond Belief'; FUBAR - 'F****d Up Beyond All Recognition'; FUNDY - 'F****d Up, Not Dead Yet' - as used on the notes of patients in hospitals who were, well... FUNDY. There is also: 'NFW' - 'No F***ing Way'; and 'SNAFU - 'Situation Normal, All F****d Up'. This last one is reputed to be the origin of 'naff', which was popularised in Britain in the 1970s programme Porridge, and reportedly used by Princess Anne6. In recent years, it has also come into gay parlance to disparagingly refer to heterosexuals - standing for 'not available for f***ing' or, less commonly, 'not a f***ing fairy'.

In 1999, Conservative Future - the youth wing of the Conservative Party - started using the logo 'CFUK'. Sadly, this got them into trouble with the clothing company French Connection UK, who had recently rebranded themselves 'fcuk'. It is strange to think that there may be an entire generation who, like Norman Mailer, cannot spell the word.

A phrase that, until recently, was almost exclusively American, is 'mother-f****r'. Although it has been suggested that this means merely 'someone who rapes your mother' and was coined by slaves to describe the slave owners, there does not appear to be any evidence for this theory. It is more likely a taunt designed to be as offensive as possible, with Oedipal connotations.

From the Middle English for 'wriggle' or the Old French for 'rub', 'frig' is sometimes used as a euphemism for 'f***', at other times used to mean 'masturbate'; usually only seen as a gerundive (or verbal adjective) 'frigging'. The Sex Pistols did a version of The Good Ship Venus with the chorus 'Frigging in the rigging 'cos there's f*** all else to do'.

Literally 'one who commits buggery' (anal sex), 'bugger' derives from Bulgaria and the Bogomils. These were originally a heretic Christian sect who were stigmatised as sodomites. Section 12 of the UK 1956 sexual offences act refers to buggery. According to this, buggery is sexual intercourse between males or between male and female in an 'unnatural manner', or between male or female with an animal in any manner whatsoever. This word is often used affectionately, as in 'lucky bugger'; 'jammy bugger'; 'flash bugger'; 'old bugger' and so on, and is sometimes softened to 'beggar'.

The famous and probably apocryphal epitaph says, 'Under this sod, lies another'. Sod means turf, but here is an abbreviation for 'Sodomite'. Sodomy is, like 'bugger', anal sex, and the word 'Sodomite' refers to the population of the Old Testament city Sodom which was destroyed by God because of the sinful ways of its inhabitants. He destroyed its twin town Gomorrah at the same time, and it is tempting to wonder what the people of Gomorrah did to be ranked with the Sodomites. Schoolboys also used to snigger at the Good King Wenceslas verse which goes:

In his master's steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the saint had printed

This was also the word which brought about the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. The Marquess of Queensberry was the father of Wilde's young lover Bosie, and in a rage he accused Wilde on paper of posing as a 'Somdomite' (so not only was he narrow-minded, he couldn't spell either). Bosie encouraged Wilde to sue for libel, but the truth is no libel and when it became clear that Wilde was indeed a sodomite, he was in turn tried and jailed for it.

In recent years, an alternative to the f-word has grown in popularity, largely thanks to the Austin Powers films. 'Shag' has a dozen or so definitions that are completely non-sexual though; one comes from the Old Norse for beard, hence 'shaggy' to describe someone or something that looks loose and unkempt (cf 'shag-pile carpets'). There are the small marine birds called shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis or Phalacrocorax punctatus) of Europe and North Africa, which are related to the cormorant. The famous Liver Birds on the crest of Liverpool are inspired by these river waders. 'Shag' is also a kind of coarse tobacco, so it should be possible to go into a tobacconist and ask the person behind the counter to give you their best shag without being arrested. In 1987, the American soul group The Tams had a Top 30 UK hit with a song called There Ain't Nothing Like Shaggin'. They were probably rather puzzled to hear that what they regarded as an innocent little ditty about a dance craze was having trouble getting airplay in Britain. And you would think that Americans in the entertainment industry would have learned to check the titles of their movies and indeed the names of their bands and songs for international innuendo. Mind you, it must be tempting to mislead them if you are the person who they ask for the advice.

Bodily Functions

Swear-words that do not pertain to body parts invariably refer to bodily functions or secretions. It's true to say that the first swear-words most children learn are scatological, focusing on urination ('wee-wee') or excretion ('plop', 'poo'). As we get older, though sexual swear-words tend to predominate, there is still a resistance to progressing beyond what Freud described as the 'anal phase'.


Both a noun and a verb, meaning excrement and to excrete, and also used an adjective, 'shit' is a true Anglo Saxon word. Curiously, the past participle of 'shit' was once 'shitten', as shown in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales where he refers to the 'shitten shepherd and clene sheep'. Though we might expect this to have evolved into 'shitted', the more common form of the word in the past tense is in fact 'shat'. 'Shite' is an alternative form of the word, particularly used in Scotland, Ireland and Northern England.

In the 18th Century Jonathan Swift describes the disillusion of an obsessed voyeur called Strephon in the following lines:

Thus finishing his grand survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amorous fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

'Bullshit', an Americanism, is used to mean 'rubbish' or 'nonsense', and from that we get the back-formation 'bull'.

'Crap' is vulgar, but less so than 'shit'. In addition to 'excrement', it can be used to mean 'stuff' or 'things'. Like shit, it may also be used as an adjective: a Brit might describe something as being crap or crappy, in the same way they might describe something slightly worse as shit or shitty. There are two possible origins for the word. The word has links to the Middle English for chaff, and the Middle Dutch 'to tear off' which is more suitable than ever in these days of velvet-soft toilet tissue. A second possible origin is the Victorian plumber named Thomas Crapper who gave the world the syphonic flush: British Standard 7357 (1990) still requires that 'Cisterns shall be supplied with an efficient flushing apparatus of the valveless syphonic type which prevents the waste of water.' Crapper left his name not only on toilet cisterns, but also on manhole covers across southern England. And thus a crapper is a toilet, and not the person who uses it.

  • Crap is obsolete slang for money, which is presumably the origin of the Craps game. So an American might 'throw a crap', that is they might throw a seven while trying to make a point. These American usages leaves Brits either sniggering or confused or both.

  • Crap is a noun rather than a verb, and Brits will 'have a crap', except when they are afraid, then they are 'crapping it'.

  • Confusingly 'crapulence' (from the Latin for being drunk) is sickness caused by heavy drinking. However it often also involves toilets.


The word 'piss' (or, in Scotland, 'pish') has its origins in Latin (pissare) and French (pisser), an onomatopoeic word to describe the sound of urination. One of the mildest swear-words, it nevertheless has a major influence on a number of common British phrases.

When men sleep, the build-up of urine in the bladder puts pressure on the man's prostate gland, resulting in an erection. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, a man who was thought to be unnecessarily arrogant would be described as 'piss-proud'. The New Canting Dictionary of 1725 contained an entry on 'vain-glorious or ostentatious me' which read:

One that boasts without reason, or, as the Canters say, 'pisses more than he drinks'.

If you were to ridicule someone for being too 'full of themself', you would 'take the piss' out of them. As the word 'piss' became categorised as vulgar, the phrase was modified - 'taking the micturations', later shortened to 'taking the mickey' (nothing to do with a person called Michael). With the invention of the urinal, gentlemen would aim towards a small illustration of a bee, intended as a 'pissing point', the Latin word for bee being 'apis', while a domestic commode would be referred to as a 'piss-pot'. In Britain, the link between alcohol and urine is clear: a night out might be described as 'going on the piss'; if a person appears to be spending his money excessively on alcohol he is said to be 'Pissing it against the wall' - presumably on the same principle that you don't buy bad beer, just rent it; a 'piss-up' is a drunken party or pub-crawl.

'Smeg' is a word that has only come into common usage as a swear-word since 1988 after it was popularised by the BBC science fiction sitcom Red Dwarf. Short for smegma, which is defined with delicacy as 'a sebaceous secretion, especially that under the prepuce', it is derived from the Greek for soap, and it is also known, less delicately, as 'knobcheese'.

General Insults

William the Conqueror's parents were not married, and before 1066 he was known as 'William the Bastard'. After 1066, the Anglo Saxons he conquered would probably still have called him 'William the Bastard' for quite different reasons. One theory of the etymology of this insult says that it comes from the French word 'bast' as in 'fils de bast' meaning son of the packsaddle, which compares with the British English usage of someone being 'born the wrong side of the blanket' or being 'the son of a gun' (as in a 'shotgun wedding'). Another connects it with the Old Frisian for marriage, and Old English for bind. Brits will say that something like the weather, or a sports result is 'a complete bastard' as well as calling someone, usually male, a bastard if they have been particularly unpleasant. The word is sometimes gentrified to 'Bar Steward', Australians use the word bastard as a term of affection.

The poet Robert Graves wrote a very odd little book called Lars Porsena, or The Future of Swearing and Improper Language. Writing in the 1920s, he claimed that there was an definite class difference in the use of the words 'bastard' and 'bugger'. He claimed that in the working class, people might well be sensitive about illegitimacy, but were often unfamiliar with homosexuality, and so bastard was a mortal insult and bugger was a much milder term. The severity was reversed in the upper classes, who had nice traceable bloodlines and a boarding-school education. He claimed that bugger was a much more serious insult in upper-class circles, where people were more likely to believe it.

Although 'bitch' and 'bastard' have different meanings, their usage is very similar, for, although a bitch is a female dog of any age, the word 'bitch' is often used as a female form of 'bastard'. It's used to describe someone who is vitriolic or scheming (like Joan Collins in Dynasty); in prison, it indicates a 'subordinate', often used in relationships about power; it's frequently used as a derogatory term to describe women - as in the dance track by the Prodigy, 'Smack my Bitch Up'. One familiar American usage is to call someone a 'son of a bitch'; Jack Nicholson is reported as saying that his mother was able to call him a son of a bitch with no detectable irony. Finally, to 'bitch about something' is to complain or whinge about it.

The word 'git' is connected with 'get' but in the sense of spawn or offspring, as in the old verb to beget, so your 'get' are your (probably illegitimate) offspring. In the northwest of England get is still used in the way that git is in the rest of the country. In the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part, Alf Garnett used to refer his Liverpudlian son in law7 as a 'Scouse git'. 'Git' is only a very mild form of abuse (certainly in the UK anyway), and it can be used affectionately with people, calling someone a git as a real form of abuse is more likely to encourage them to laugh at you.

'Pillock' is another word which was revived in Till Death Us Do Part. Its origins are in the word 'pillicock', which is northern English slang for 'penis', and which compares with the shorter and more southern 'cock'. The earliest usage recorded in the OED describes someone getting their feet wet and saying: 'Mi pilkoc pisseth on mi schone' (schone' meaning shoes). Pillock is no longer considered obscene. British politician Mo Mowlem was filmed on TV in a shopping precinct during the 2001 general election campaign telling someone wearing an odd shop uniform that they looked 'a complete pillock'. Everyone smiled, possibly with relief that Ms Mowlem, who has a reputation for using 'short words', used one of the longer and more repeatable ones.

A term of abuse that is all-but completely lost on Americans is 'w****r', derived from the word 'w**k', to rhyme with 'tank', which is a term for masturbation. Often used to denote a stupid person, it has been heard in American shows such as Miami Vice and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spoken by characters allegedly from London (cf 'tosser'). The adjective 'w***ered' is often used by Brits (usually Londoners or people who have lived in London for some time) to mean 'extremely drunk'.


This is a subject which fills books, and has a word all of its own: what you have been reading is a brief outline of English scatolinguistics. One of the things which becomes clear is that usage varies widely from country to country, and within countries. In one place a word may be a term of affection, in another a clear and direct term of abuse. And these words provide a potted social history of the speakers of the English Language. However, used appropriately and with panache, many people feel that these words actually add depth, colour and a sense of regional variation to the English language.

1Arse is not, unsurprisingly, recognised by Microsoft's US English Spell-checker.2Of course, this is a fairly easy game to play: Federal University of Cape Kennedy and Sheffield Hallam Institute of Technology are a couple of tempting but apocryphal examples.3That pesky vowel shift again, perhaps.4Surprisingly, the word 'prick' when used as an insult does not come from slang for male genitalia but from farming equipment; the prick was a shaft of sharpened wood used to keep oxen in place. A person was said to be 'kicking against the prick' if they resisted authority even if it meant harming themself. In other words, being a 'prick' was being unduly rebellious.5Bizarrely, 'fukt' means humidity in mainstream Swedish. There is a sign 20k from Stockholm's main airport which says 'tid 13.25' or whatever time it is that you drive past, 'temp -10°' or however cold it is, and 'fukt 76%', which is a useful statistic to know about the people in the country you are visiting. You can also buy 'Fukt Creme' in some shops in Sweden, although (disappointingly) this is a hand cream and not a lubricant.6In the 1970s she was famously reported as telling reporters to 'Naff off'.7Played by Anthony Booth, father of Cherie Blair, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

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