Jonathon Green – visit his website here – is the English language’s leading lexicographer of slang. His Green’s Dictionary of Slang is quite simply the most comprehensive and authorative work on slang ever published. Having last week looked at slang’s attitide to women and nagging, he this week turns the tables and examines the favourite male pastime of talking bollocks…
I am taken to task, doubtless rightly so, for my suggestion that men neither scold nor nag. Yet in slang world, where self-images of what is and is not ‘male’ dictate, it is true. Such imperfections exist, but they are unacknowledged and unavowed. In slang all is slangy which means macho and what men do is talk. Loudly, boastfully, emptily, pompously, tediously, and, how could we forget, aggressively. Standard English gives us, inter alia, hector, named for the Trojan hero, which in slang has meant braggart, bully and even pimp. And slang gives us somewhat more.
Let us start on the farm with what is euphemistically termed cow confetti or meadow mayonnaise but all that is of course bullshit. Nonsense. The noun appears in 1914 and the adjective and verb soon after but they all must have been around longer since bull, the abbreviation-cum-euphemism is recorded in 1896. Bullshit turned agent gave bullshitter, as well as bullsh, bullshipper and indeed shitter as well as the equally defecatory crapper, skite and skiter. Still excremental, but earlier is the cacafuego, a mix of Portuguese cagar, to shit and Spanish fuego, fire and thus literally a ‘shit-fire’. The name was also that of a Spanish galleon taken by Sir Francis Drake in 1577. ‘Firing’ also gives petronel, properly a kind of large pistol or carbine, used around 1600. Meanwhile the military offers a variety of Captains, all brimful of braggadocio: Captain Bluff, Captain Bluster, Captain Bounce, the punning Captain Bubble-and Squeak, Captain Hackum, Captain Huff, and Captain He-man, for whom there must surely be a plastic replica.
Bull, as noted, is assumed to be an abbreviation but it may be worth noting the Old French boul or boule, meaning fraud, deceit, and trickery. Euphemism or otherwise it has created a legion of compounds. The bullfest or bull session, a group of men sitting around gossiping; the bull artist, bull shooter, bull merchant, bull slinger and bull thrower, all braggarts, boasters. and purveyors of dubious information. The Spanish athlete is one who ‘throws the bull around’, and the bull can also be tossed, slung, shot, spread and bunged on. The information is more or less euphemised as bull con, bullcorn, bull-crap, bull dinky, bulldust, bullfeathers (the Marx Brothers opted for the equine variety), bull-fodder, bull hockey, bull-jive, bull muffin, bull pucky, bull-stuff, bull-sugar, bullwash (which may be linked to the synonymous bushwa, though that is only a version of bullshit or, possibly, linked to the Canadian bois de vache, buffalo dung) and bull’s wool. And they can all be used literally as well as metaphorically. The imperative tie that bull (or that animal) outside requests the speaker to stop talking bollocks.
Still among the animals there is the alligator, jaws a-yawning, which gives the adjuration don’t let your alligator mouth overload your canary ass and its variants don’t let your alligator mouth overload your ass(hole), don’t let your mouth buy what your ass can’t pay for and don’t let your mouth write a cheque your ass can’t cash. The one who refuses to shut up when reticence might be the sensible way to go has an alligator mouth and a hummingbird or canary ass. The bubbly jock is rhyming slang for a turkey cock (and the army’s nickname for the Royal Scots Greys). For our purposes it means a foolish braggart, implying turkey-like characteristics: strutting and making too much noise. Australia adds the blowfly, which plays on blow, to sound off, and aims at the petty official, who can be guilty of blowflyism, i.e officiousness. Finally the late 16th century’s kill-cow, who claimed, that he could ‘kill a cow with one blow’. He lacked believers. Blow is more popular, giving blowhard, blow-bags, blowgun and a blow off.
To speak one requires the mouth and the mouth duly provides its own range of self-aggrandizing personas. There is the mouth almighty, the mouth artist (and the bilge artist) and the mouth-off. There is the phrase all mouth and trousers and indeed all mouth and no trousers, both implying all talk and no action. Alternatives include all piss or piddle and wind (like the barber’s cat), all prick and breeches and all prick and no pence (which adds poverty to noisy arrogance). Other mouths include the fatmouth (which may come from the Mandingo da-ba, big or fat mouth), the loudmouth and loudspeaker, and the flannel mouth. The equation of flannel and nonsense can be seen in the 19th century tradesman’s jargon term for the ornate, scroll-ridden letterheads with which they garlanded the invoices they sent to their aristocratic clients; there is no proof, however, that this is linked to the modern use, however similar. Or one has the flapjaw, the gum-beater, the huff-snuff and the South African grootbek, literally ‘big mouth’. South Africa also gives windgat, literally ‘windy-arse’, and the wind is a constant image: one finds windbag and windsucker (originally a worn-out and heavily breathing horse, en route to the knackers) and to have one’s face out a yard and sucking wind which is to be talking rot. Still windy is the trumpeter and the declaration that one’s trumpeter is dead, i.e. the boaster lacks believers and is therefore forced to ‘blow his own trumpet.’ Physical if not oral is the bellswagger, defined as one who ‘swaggers his belly’; Robert Nares, in his Glossary (1822), cites the intriguing ‘St. Belswagger of Mims’ but cannot offer any information on ‘the history of this canonised person.’
And some are random. The four-flusher, who conveniently overlooks the need for five cards in a poker flush, cutting Dick, who may have really existed and wounded for real as well as in speech, a false alarm, a pump-thunder, a hot-dogger and a jack-bragger, a big doings and a big noter, a swankpot and a swellhead. The Caribbean bignaduo claims themself to be ‘big as a door’. The late 16th century puckfist or puckfoist was seemingly linked to botany’s puckfist, the puff-ball, but fist or foist could also mean fart, thus back to blowing off.
Last of all comes the late 19th century’s Tooley Street tailor, a concept based on three tailors of Tooley Street, SE1 who supposedly put together a petition to Parliament. It carried none but their own signatures but was headed grandiosely, ‘We the people of England…’
Ask Mr Slang – Jonathon Green answers your slang questions!
image ©Gabriel Green
Question – sent in by David Macey
My sense is that there are many slang words for drunk but relatively few for hungover, which strikes me as a rather sanguine feature of the English language. Assuming I’m right–I know from your Dabbler piece on ‘drunk’ that my first part is–what do you think accounts for the disparity?
I can think of a few euphemisms for hungover, such as delicate and out of sorts, but the term seems to lack the same lexical wealth that drunk enjoys. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Mr Slang answers:
I can find 65 slang terms for hangover or hungover. If one stretches it a bit and adds those for delirium tremens, there are a further 40. Which is in itself interesting: the extreme produces only one-third fewer than does the quotidian. One might have assumed a wider difference. But even then, as you rightly point out, far from a substantial number compared with those for drunk.
Quite why this should be – and it’s a good question – is something that I’m not sure that I can answer other than to theorise. Perhaps it is because slang tends to look outwards. In other words one can celebrate drinking and the experience of being drunk, and one can laugh at the problems of others (mad, ugly, stupid, etc.) but one prefers not to acknowledge one’s own suffering. Especially self-induced. That proposed, it really is but a theory, which is based not on any intrinsic ‘rules’ within the lexis, but simply on my feelings about the way the slang vocabulary tends to work. If one looks at a rough taxonomy of emotions within slang, there is relatively little self-analysis or observation compared to celebration and boasting.
Do you have a question for Mr Slang? Email it to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll send it on to Jonathon.