On the radar: “Wanker”

A reader who goes by dw alerted me to this classic New York Post headline:

I have given a lot of thought to wanker, always deciding that it had not really gotten sufficient traction in the U.S. to be a full-fledged entry in this blog. I still think that’s the case, but maybe the Post–which is, of course, an Aussie production–will prove to be the tipping point.

31 thoughts on “On the radar: “Wanker”

  1. When I was a young chap at a publishing house in NYC in the early 1980s, an even younger (entirely American) chap fresh out of Brandeis washed up at my door and used the word “wanker” so freely that it never occurred to me it might be a recent import from the U.K. Today, 30 years later, it seems to me, it can’t really be thought of as a RECENT import under any circumstances.

  2. One can distinguish between the verb “wank” (meaning masturbate) and the derived noun “wanker” (literally “one who masturbates” but usually an insult roughly equivalent to American “jerk”).

    The NY Post headline uses the verb “wank” with its literal meaning, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen much in American English before — certainly not in a headline!

  3. Thanks, dw, for taking care of the defining duties. George, I wonder what became of your Brandeis mate; he was operating at a truly impressive level of pretentiousness. Definitely, “wanker” is not a recent import–it’s just that it has traditionally been the province of anglophile, well, wankers.

  4. I first heard the term “wanker” back in the late 70s while attending Journalism School at The Ohio State University. I knew the instant I heard the term that it was not US English, so I asked my friend where he learned it. He said from a friend. I met his friend the next night at a party, and he was most decidedly British — and then I knew. I have always considered this a British term ever since then, and I rarely use it.

    So I have a laugh every time I see that headline from the NY Post. Not over-the-top in that case — but a nice, welcome play on words.

  5. Do you think the Post had any idea how offensive this word is in British English? The British press are pretty liberal with mild British swearwords, but this could never hit the shelves here!

  6. Certainly not a word used in polite conversation anywhere….my Scottish friends tell me it is a way of calling someone a “Jack off” in the worst sense and a “Jerk” in the mildest form…again….not for use in civil sentences….

  7. A real coffee on moment screen. There were jokes about his porn stash in the British media, but I don’t think this formulation occurred… presumably due to our not dropping the terminal Gs.

    It might have worked for Saddam. “Saddam, Saddam’s got an oil tanker. Saddam, Saddam’s a… great big threat to international security”. At the time of the Lewinsky scandal, there were jokes about BJ receiving a BJ.

    The etymology seems to be as a cognate of the contemporary Greek malakoi which means similar, and hails from Biblical Greek μαλακοὶ (as seen in 1 Cor 6:9).

    There’s a mountain in southern Germany called Wank, which should arouse (hoho) as much hilarity as the hill Maidan’s Pap near to where I live.

  8. Relocating to the US in the mid-eighties I was intrigued, watching “Married with Children” to hear Peg referring to her kinfolk back in Wanker County, You could never have got away with this on an early evening comedy in UK, but the audience just laughed along as if “wanker” meant a hillbilly or (as we might say) a swedebasher.

    I still don’t know. What does wanker actually mean in the US? And is there a verb ” to wank”?

  9. “I still don’t know. What does wanker actually mean in the US? And is there a verb ” to wank”?”

    “Wanker” means nothing in American English, but many Americans are familiar with the British meaning and already were even back in the late 1980s. The name was a sort of in-joke by the writers. They could use it in the rhyme “Peggy Wanker … don’t bother to thank her,” which played off Peg’s supposed sluttiness in high school and which everybody understood. Meanwhile, a subset of the audience also got the British slang reference, making the joke doubly funny to them.

    “To wank” is also not an American word, but it’s becoming very familiar to Americans and is creeping into American speech. In American English (perhaps not in British English), it is less vulgar than many of the slang terms for “masturbate” and is shorter than the cutesy-poo expressions people invent to avoid having to choose between the vulgar “jerk off” and the clinical “masturbate.” Thus, it serves a useful purpose.

  10. I think bugger is even more commonly used, but with far less sense of what it means in British. Cute little bugger, etc. Then there’s our mispronunciation of solder that gets Brits cringing, or laughing.

  11. There is certainly a verb ‘to wank’ and there is the phrase ‘to have a wank’. It applies to males and females and therefore has a broader meaning than ‘jerk-off’ which I suspect a US woman wouldn’t use.

    If you call someone a wanker you might also be implying that he or she is an egotist, a bit full of himself, possibly holding an erroneous belief that his personal masturbatory pleasure is more important than anything in your tiny life.

    Rhyming slang note: Merchant banker. If you say someone is a ‘merchant banker’, you means he works for a merchant bank. If you say he is ‘a bit of a merchant banker’, you mean he’s a wanker. You also sometimes see the word ‘banker’ used in the headlines of tabloid newspapers with this double meaning.

  12. Jack Vance used to get upset with British SF fans sniggering at him all the time. Well, if he will publish a book entitled Servants of the Wankh

  13. What about “Twat”, how is that interpreted over the pond? I know Americans understand the literal meaning, but what of the softer cultural meaning.
    To describe someone of annoying but benign personality, such as Richard Madeley or Ryan Seagrass.

    1. RichieR – I think the two gents you mention are prats, not twats. Twat is pretty rude and strangely enough seems to be getting ruder as people in the UK realised that it basically means the same as ‘cunt’. I think that started when David Cameron used the word in a tweet and was roundly told off for it.

  14. I recall the word wanker being used in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer about 10 years ago. It was uttered by the character Spike who originated in England. I was kind of surprised to hear it being used on a primetime american tv show.

  15. In the late Eighties a group of British engineers from our company were working at Wang Labs in Massachusetts. They were called into an all-hands company meeting one day to recognise an employee for outstanding achievement. It was announced from the stage that this person was a King in the company and so would be presented with the Wang King award. The entire British contingent had to leave the room in in hysterics..

  16. I have always thought that wank is related to the German verb wanken: to shake, to wobble. It could date back to Anglo-Saxon days. If it is not, then there is no justice in the world. Of course it’s not a naughty word in German.

  17. Calling someone a Wanker on this side of the divide is definitely not PC – in the work place it can mean incompetence, untrustworthyness or unreliability. Whist used socially it questions the subject’s ability to ‘pull a bird’.

    More correctly, you mean to say that he’s an Onanist; which is one who is given to an inordinate use of the five-finger-shuffle, a quick one off the wrist, pocket billiards…. as it were.

    Now, as a substitute, try calling him a ‘Tosser’. In equal currency as a word It means the same, but with slightly milder undertones………….

  18. We have a local joke in the Chicago Area:

    Q: What is the difference between diabetics and masturbators (wankers)?

    A: Diabetics prick their fingers!

  19. Channel 4 got in a lot of trouble for airing an episode of The Simpsons at about 6pm which contained words such as “wanker” and “bollocks”. They decided the words weren’t offensive enough to warrant censoring, but people complained. Damn killjoys. I’m of the firm opinion that words are simply words, and why should certain words be classed as “rude” when they mean the same as other words considered to not be rude?

  20. I went to the US in the Autumn/Fall of 1978 and stayed with a really nice family in Gainesville, Florida, for three months. The weather was warm and rained around 5-6 pm alot with occasional thunderstioms.

    On one of the, seemeingly endless, sunny days, I was a passenger in a VW beetle with the 18yr old son of the people I was staying with. (I was 22). Before we knew it; a car – big, american boat of a thing, cut us up. As the windows were down, I leant out and shouted at the top of my voice, “WANKER!!!” at the oblivious driver. My driver asked what I shouted meant. I explained.

    It really means now, what it meant then: an idiot who spends more time worrying about the state of his dick, than the state of his life.


  21. The New York Post seems trashy even by Rupert Murdoch’s very low standards. The headlines featured on this blog are nonsensical, garbled rubbish which stretch the definition of “pun” to even lower levels. They’re barely readable.

  22. See my comment from a decade ago (October 11, 2012).

    In the U.S., diabetics prick their fingers; “Progressives (Labour Party Members),” e.g. Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer, do the exact opposite. Corbyn and Starmer are wankers. Not all people from the U.K. are diabetics; nor are they all wankers.

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