Skip to content

the bull’s bollocks

November 11, 2015

On a recent episode of Strictly Come Dancing, pathological extravert Bruno Tonioli described one contestant’s dance as “the bull’s bollocks”. Cue embarrassed apology from the presenter, Tess Daley; and then the BBC apologised again, officially, at the end of the show. So was Bruno in trouble? It turns out not. There were few complaints from viewers (only 19) and Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, ruled that bollocks is acceptable before the 9pm watershed, if used in a comic context.

Well. This prompts a few reflections. The first is on the genealogy of the strange expression “the bull’s bollocks”. The story goes like this, I think: once it was fashionable to refer to anything impressive or remarkably good of its kind as “the business”. Then people started humorously altering this to “the bees’ knees”. And then people thought, let’s be even more humorous and change both the animal and the body-part: thus, “the cat’s whiskers”. And then someone – probably an Australian – thought, let’s have a really rude, earthy, masculine,no-nonsense version of this expression: hence “the dog’s bollocks”. And finally Bruno Tonioli decided to take it a step further by substituting for the dog a really big-bollocked animal, the bull. (I suppose “the elephant’s bollocks” will be the next stage.)

The second reflection is on the word bollocks itself. It’s a corruption of the older form ballocks, and the suffix -ock actually indicates small size: a hillock is a small hill, a bullock a small bull. So a bollock is a small ball. This is confirmed by the slang insult pillock, not much heard now, which must once have also meant “testicle” (pill being a synonym for ball).

And the third interesting thing is how this word is now generally deemed inoffensive, as confirmed by Ofcom’s ruling. This wasn’t always so. When the Sex Pistols’ album Never Mind the Bollocks came out in the late 70s, the vowels had to be asterisked out. I’m not sure why the word has ceased to be regarded as a grade-one swearword. Bollocks seem to me every bit as rude as cocks; but I don’t think Bruno Tonioli would have got away with saying that a contestant had danced like a complete cock.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

One Comment
  1. Mark Brafield permalink

    Now this is interesting. I recall the Sex Pistols’ court case in which the Magistrates were asked to consider whether the word ‘bollocks’ was offensive. Their finding was that it was not offensive, having heard expert evidence (as I recall) that the word simply meant ‘a small ball’. Wikipedia, however, says that Richard Branson instructed John Mortimer QC whose expert witness gave evidence that ‘bollocks’ was a medieval word meaning ‘nonsense’ and referring to ‘a priest’ (which does not seem quite right).

    Staying on the subject, a friend of mine used to have an Indian driving instructor who had a good, but not perfect, grasp of English idiom. If he thought something was rubbish, he would say ‘that is bollock’. My friend and I loved his mistaken grasp of the phrase, but also agreed, on reflection, that it was a good way of describing something that was fairly rubbish but perhaps not complete rubbish – or bollocks, in fact.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: