Category Archives: Profanity

‘Bollix’ [or ‘Bollocks’ or ‘Ballocks’] Up’

I’ve written briefly a couple of times about the off-color term “bollocks,” originally meaning testicles and since used in all sorts of colorful ways. (The link is the more recent post, and it has a link to the previous one.) I recommend the comments on both, many of which are relate to how offensive the term has been, until fairly recently, in Britain.

I imagine that the move to acceptability occurred following the 1977 album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The record company was actually brought to court on obscenity charges; it won. Incidentally, it appears that the album led to the change in the more common spelling of the word, from “ballocks” to “bollocks.” Check out this chart from Google Books Ngram Viewer, showing the incidence of the two words in British books:

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As to the aforementioned “colorful ways,” here are just a few of the variants in the invaluable online resource Green’s Dictionary of Slang:

My topic today stems from a video clip someone put on Twitter of the American MSNBC commentator Joy Reid:

In the clip, Reid says about the Trump campaign’s Tulsa rally (helpfully defining the term after using it), “They completely bollixed it. They completely messed it up.” New York Times reporter Tariq Panja commented, “Not heard the phrase ‘bollocksed it’ [more on the spelling issue in a minute] used on the news before, and certainly not in the US. But, it has to be said, she’s used it correctly here!”

Well, the fact is “bollix” is a common American verb of long standing, admittedly usually followed by the preposition “up.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang’s first citation is from a Purdue University publication in 1902; the next two also American (as are all citations through 1954):

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(I’m struck that both Jerome Weidman and Arthur Kober were Jewish New Yorkers, as am I, and the term does have a suggestion to me of that milieu. However, my Yiddish expert friend Andrew Cassel tells me it doesn’t stem from that language; he says  my feeling may stem from the fact that Yiddish has a great number of words denoting fouling things up or failing.)

The first British use in Green’s doesn’t come till 1960, in the Colin MacInnes novel Mr. Love and Justice: “I hope your private investigations haven’t b—d up the situation prematurely.” (The omitted letters indicate the offensiveness of the word.) And from then on, Irish and British uses are common, with spellings including “bollix,” “bollocks.” “bollox,” and “bollux.”

But why would “bollix up” have been established in America first, when all other forms of “ballocks” were much more widespread in Britain? I believe I know the answer, or at least part of it, and it has been suggested (though even there not accepted) only once before as far as I know, in a short article in 1949 in the academic journal Modern Language Notes. It’s this: American “bollix up” does not derive from “ballocks”=”testicles,” but rather from an older phrase with a different etymology, “ball up.” The OED‘s first definition: “Of a shoe (esp. a horseshoe), hoof, etc.: to become clogged with balls of mud, snow, or the like. Also with the horse as subject.” The dictionary has citations, all but one American, dating from 1760. This is from George Washington’s 1787 diary: “Apprehension of the Horses balling with the snow.”

And that verb led to this broader, exclusively American definition of “ball”: “To clog or tangle; to bring into a state of entanglement, confusion, or difficulty. Frequently as past participle, esp. in balled up.” An 1885 citation is from a Mark Twain letter: “It will ‘ball up’ the binderies again.”

It seems evident to me that that expression led to “bollix up” within a couple of decades — pace the OED, which gives a “ballocks” etymology. (Green’s is silent on the question.) The one thing I don’t know is why it took on the extra syllable. It may indeed have been a conscious or unconscious nod to “ballocks” (which was commonly used in the U.S. to refer to testicles, though mostly in a farming context). Or it may have have been merely to add emphasis. Either way, I’m convinced that America “bollix up” doesn’t principally derive from “ballocks.”

By contrast, the author of that 1949 article in Modern Language Notes, Thomas Pyle, contended that it did. Otherwise, he wrote, “the similarity in from and the identity in meaning taken together must be accounted a truly remarkable coincidence.” I’m going with remarkable coincidence.

There is one more wrinkle.  The expression “balls-up,” meaning a blunder or error, shows up in an 1889 British dictionary of jargon and cant. Robert Graves used it in his 1929 World War I memoir, Goodbye to All That: “Tomorrow’s going to be a glorious balls-up.” Then it became a verb with the same meaning as “ball up”, no later than 1947, when Dan Devin used it in For the Rest of Our Lives, his novel about the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (N.Z.E.F.) in World War II: “: If only they haven’t ballsed up the bomb-line we gave them.”  From then on it appears frequently in British and Australian texts.

And does “balls up” relate to “balls”=”testicles”? Without a doubt, yes.