What is this bollocks?


Anglorama nr 4/2005 (32)

What is this bollocks?

Naturally, nobody likes to find themselves colonised, but the shock falls hardest on those who like to think that they are the colonialists. After sending their language across the Atlantic, the English found to their discomfort that it did much better there than in their mother country — and worse, they found the upstart American English being repackaged and sold back to them. It’s no wonder that British English speakers cherish their swear-words. They need to complain about their trans-Atlantic cousins but shy away from the fact that Americans have the monopoly on colourful swearing. Grumbling Brits like to say that American sitcoms are ‘bollocks’ (bad) and that politicians ‘talk bollocks’ (nonsense, lies). They might like to give the latter a good ‘bollocking’ (tell them off), but you can also hear them saying that English football is the ‘dog’s bollocks’ (really good). You might say ‘bollocks’ when you realise you’ve just locked yourself out of your house, and ‘bollocks to that’ to show that you’re giving up on your attempt to resolve the problem by squeezing through the bathroom window. If an Irish passer-by noticed this comical attempt to get inside, you might find him referring to you as ‘that bollocks’ in the pub that evening.

The more basic meaning of ‘bollocks’ can be traced back to the eleventh century, when an Anglo-Saxon scribe, seeking to translate the Latin testiculi, wrote beallucas — and beallucas has changed over time to assume its current form bollocks. Originally, bollocks were to balls as hillocks were to hills: small versions of the same thing (-ock being an old diminutive ending). Whereas the Americans are fond of talking about people ‘having balls’ or indeed being ‘ballsy’ (brave), it is more common for the British to say that politicians ‘talk balls’, to say ‘balls’ when they lost their keys and to refer to an accident as a ‘balls-up’. Going back more deeply into the word’s history, it is distantly related not only to bulge, bulk and belly, but even, through the common Indo-European ancestors of the English and Celtic languages, to Belgium. These words originally shared senses of roundness, bulginess and of being inflated. The Belgians got their name from the ancient Celtic tribe of the Belgae: although it is tempting to suppose that the Belgae were named for their infamously baggy trousers, the name more probably reflects the meaning of ‘enraged’ or ‘fierce’ (through the idea that being angry feels like being swollen or inflated). Either way, as people who are by turns as Eurosceptic as they are anti-American, the British find their hearts warmed by the information that Brussels lies in a land associated, however distantly, with bollocks.

Although the semantics of bollocks should now be clear enough, the question of the social contexts in which one can use the word is more delicate. In America, it seems, the British can use the word both with impunity and with amusement, as no-one there understands what it means. In Britain, bollocks, containing more than four letters as it does, is among the milder swear-words: kids start saying it to each other in their teens if not before, but generally only when they don’t think adults will hear. It’s normal enough in conversational situations among young people, but marked (and therefore potentially more offensive) in formal ones. In Britain, it is perhaps safer to remember the word primarily to save you asking anyone ‘What is this bollocks?’

Alaric Hall

upstart – parweniuszowski
to shy away from – unikać zrobienia czegoś
bollocks – (wulgarnie) jądra
to resolve – rozwiązywać (problem)

to squeeze – wciskać sie
passer – by – przechodzien
scribe – skryba
hillock – pagórek

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