Wassup, Wazzock?

You may have caught this Budweiser ad during the Super Bowl. Dame Helen Mirren sits before a burger, is served a Bud (not bloody likely), and counsels, in strong language, against driving drunk. Anyone who does so, she avers, is a “shortsighted, utterly useless, oxygen-wasting human form of pollution.” Then, at about the 41-second mark, she says, “Don’t be a pillock.”

My guess is that somewhere north of 99 percent of the people who saw the spot had no idea what a pillock is — though they could clearly tell by context clues that it isn’t a good thing. I certainly wasn’t familiar with the term and went straight to the Oxford English Dictionary, whose first definition is: “orig. Sc[ottish]. The penis. Now Eng. regional (north.) and rare.” The copywriter for the Mirren commercial was clearly going for definition No. 2, which is “Chiefly Brit. colloq. (mildly derogatory). A stupid person; a fool, an idiot.” The first OED citation for the figurative use is from 1967, the most recent from a rugby magazine in 2004: “Those mindless pillocks in New Zealand who slated England for the way they played in Wellington in June.”

Pillock may have rung a faint bell in the minds of English majors. It is likely a shortening of another word for penis that turns up in King Lear. Edgar, in his guise as the mad beggar Poor Tom, pipes up at one point with a line from a perverse ditty: “Pillicock sat on Pillicock hill. La, la, la, la!” (Use your imagination for the meaning of “Pillicock hill.”)

Salty British insults seem to be in the air at the moment. Returning from Australia, I caught up on some Simpsons that had piled up in my absence. In “The Girl Code,” which aired January 3, Lisa creates an avatar with a British accent (voiced by Stephen Merchant), who ultimately comes to life and, à la Mirren, delivers some hard truths, including: “Your species is on the precipice of turning into complete and utter wankers.” Wanker, of course, is an epithet whose literal meaning is habitual masturbator. One hears and reads it occasionally from Americans, who do not seem to be aware that it’s considered a fairly coarse term in the U.K., certainly more so than pillock. Indeed, a British website that provides transcripts of Simpsons episodes could not bring itself to print the word, rendering it “w*nk*rs.”

Yet another British derogatory term attracted attention in January, when — after a petition advocating banning Donald Trump from the United Kingdom attracted some 600,000 signatures — the House of Commons actually considered the question. They ended up not taking a vote, but in the course of debate, MP Victoria Atkins said Trump was a “wazzock.” Surprisingly, wazzock seems never to have meant penis. It sprang up as slang in the North of England in the 1970s as an all-purpose insult. If you would like to learn quite a bit about its origin and use, listen to this Lexicon Valley podcast with Ben Zimmer.

It has been little remarked that Trump’s name itself is a British term for a bodily function. An American friend of mine with British relatives emailed me, “When I was in England over the holidays, my 6-year-old grandnephew said, ‘I trumped!’

“The adults from America wondered why no one at home had pointed out that our leading Republican candidate’s name means to fart.

21 thoughts on “Wassup, Wazzock?

  1. Being British this blog has got me crying with laughter. Thank you so much for reintroducing Pillock to the world, a much underrated word. Yes the UK are watching a fart on TV quite a lot at the moment… I shall be dropping by regularly for a giggles, chuckles & titters. Thank you 😂

  2. Wazzock is generally a northern (English) expression. In terms of mildness of profanity, equivalent terms of abuse would include pillock, idiot, berk, wally, doughnut, pilchard, muppet etc. It includes an element of humour and possibly even fondness for the person being insulted, which wanker certainly does not.

  3. The Lexicon Valley podcast was somewhat annoying. The recorded British examples of usage all pronounce the word correctly, but the three American interlocutors can’t bring themselves to pronounce the first syllable correctly. One of them is ostensibly a linguist. Why can’t he tell the difference between a TRAP vowel and a PALM vowel? Perhaps they think that introducing a TRAP-BATH split makes them sound more British?

  4. I was born in the North of England in the 70s. Wazzock was used a lot, but the only place I’ve seen it recently is my brother in law who is named wassock on a variety of social media platforms.

    I find pillock more interesting. It was a word that 10 year old me used freely and unchastised for at Youth Club. It was very much the ‘go to’ insult among us. One day my mum lightheartedly called my dad a pillock and he exploded with anger that she had called him that, especially in front of us children. Maybe I witnessed one of the rare (I’d italicise this but my phone won’t let me) instances of someone understanding the word to mean penis.

  5. I’m very surprised that Trump meaning fart in Britain has not been commented on much. It has been used lots on my twitter feed, including some very funny cartoons.

    When you also consider that Donald is cockney rhyming slang (Donald duck = something beginning with f) you can imagine the fun that has been had!

    1. I think ‘trump’ meaning ‘fart’ has gone out of fashion in the UK, or at last in the southern half of the UK (which is the bit I know best). However, I’ve seen some comments from Australian friends, where the expression is much more current.

      1. It’s very much in use in the North. Probably more common than fart. “I can’t stop trumping” seems more polite than “I can’t stop farting” somehow.

      2. I think I’m seeing a different side to Nellie the elephant when she said goodbye to the circus?

  6. As a British northerner, I am very glad to see both “pillock” and “wazzock” making their way in the world. In my experience both words are often preceded by “You daft…”, which softens the insult considerably!

  7. I found it annoying too but for a different reason. On and on and on…are they ever going to get to the point? Is this ever going to end? My blood pressure went up and up.

    For that type of insult for someone being foolish, inept, inconsiderate or just plain annoying in whatever way, I’d also use numpty and muppet. Wally and twit are two that used to be more prevalent. Daft is a good one. Dafty is sometimes used as a noun, meaning a daft person, as in “You dafty!”

      1. Oh interesting. I didn’t know it was Scottish. Big Jessie has replaced the Cissy of my childhood. My mother had an Aunt Cissie or Cissy. It must have been a popular name at one time.

      2. Sammy, calling someone a “sissy” is pretty common in the US. I think it’s pretty universally understood to be short for “sister,” and it’s an accusation of being a coward (more literally, a girl). Although it’s usually used against men or boys, you’ll occasionally find it used against a girl.

    1. When I was teaching ‘numpty’ was my go to word to call students who had made a silly mistake. As far as I am aware it is not linked to a historic usage for learning or mental disabilities in the way that idiot, fool etc are. But I’m now curious as to where it does come from.

      1. The first citation in the OED is from 1988. It gives this etymology: “Origin uncertain; perhaps alteration of numps n. or numbskull n., with ending perhaps remodelled after humpty-dumpty n. Perhaps compare ‘naumpey’ in the sense ‘a weak, foolish-minded person’, recorded from Wiltshire in Eng. Dial. Dict.”

  8. Overheard in York District Hospital, ca. 2012:

    “So…when he (hi-altitude balloonist) got to the ground, did he break the Sound Barrier?”

    “No! He had a parachute, you daft twazzock!”

    I’d never heard the word with a ‘t’ at front before: now I use it all the time!!

  9. As a mere Londoner, I was puzzled by ‘wazzock’ when I moved to the north of England. I suspect it may be related to ‘wazz’, for which the Urban dictionary offers:
    To Piss, often used by characters in Coronation Street as they can’t say “Piss” at 7.30 on National telly.
    “I’m off for a wazz”
    “You’ve got wazz all over your hands”

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