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.“