smacking and spanking

A Guardian headline on Friday read:
Ministers defy charities to uphold parents' right to smack
(The on-line version has a different title.) The article goes on:

The government yesterday reasserted parents' right to smack their children despite overwhelming opposition from charities.

Kevin Brennan, the children's minister, said there was no reason to change the law introduced three years ago permitting smacking if it does not leave visible bruising, scratches or reddening of the skin.

After a review of the legislation, he told MPs: "Smacking is becoming a less commonly used form of discipline. While many parents say they will not smack, a majority say smacking should not be banned outright."

As can be gleaned from the prevalence of the word smack in the article (and more generally in the national debate on the topic), this is the normal BrE way to refer to striking a child as a disciplinary measure. As the OED defines smack:
5. a. To strike (a person, part of the body, etc.) with the open hand or with something having a flat surface; to slap. Also spec. to chastise (a child) in this manner and fig.
Smack is generally not used in this way in AmE, as can be seen from the American Heritage Dictionary definition:
1. To press together and open (the lips) quickly and noisily, as in eating or tasting.
2. To kiss noisily.
3. To strike sharply and with a loud noise.
Of course, the final sense there could be used to describe hitting children with an open hand, but it's just not used that way as routinely in AmE as it is in BrE. In BrE, the Guardian headline seems clear. In AmE, I might misunderstand it as 'parents' right to kiss noisily' or 'parents' right to heroin.' (Smack = 'heroin' is originally AmE slang.)

In AmE, one speaks more naturally of spanking children, but of course spank≠smack, since spank (at least in AmE) specifies that it is the bottom that is hit (typically with an open hand, but possibly with a paddle or other instrument), whereas smacking doesn't (although it may be the case that most--or at least the most prototypical--child-smacking is on bottoms). I asked Better Half whether he'd usually refer to bottom-smacking as spanking or smacking, and he felt that he'd tend to use smack to talk about hitting children because spank (to his BrE ear) has sexual overtones. (The first thing he said upon hearing spank was spank the monkey. What a naughty boy.) The OED lists spank as 'dialectal or colloquial', and does not specify that it has to be on the bottom:
1. a. trans. To slap or smack (a person, esp. a child) with the open hand.
This UK site has spank as 'slang', but it is not slang in AmE--and not sexual unless clearly used in a sexual context.

Searching for spank on the Guardian website, I find that it doesn't occur in the current articles on the 'smacking debate' but that it does occur in articles on sport, music (due to a hiphop group called Spank Rock) and sex. So, there's little evidence that the AmE usage of spank for child-bottom-hitting is making its way into BrE. But since the OED entries have not been updated since 1989, it'll be interesting to see if they pick up on any changes in their next updates.


  1. My parents said (and used) "spank"; no slang about it - standard Scots English, as far as I know.

  2. This isn't the first time that it's seemed likely that the dividing waters are those of the Tweed and Esk rather than the Atlantic.

  3. To my American ears, "smacking a child" sounds like an open-hand slap across the face.

  4. Am/E. Smack: Yup, I'm right with Matt, that or a hit to the back of the head. Implying mild abuse rather than discipline.

    Spanking is the marginally acceptable open handed bottom slap as correction. Having been spanked, I'm with banning all physical "correction."

    The sexual implications, are, as you mention, only if in an explicitly sexual context. Smack as a kiss as a substitute for "peck", as between long marrieds sort of thing.

  5. Cdn/E. This is news to me. Smack is on the head unless specified "Smack on the bottom"; Spank is on the bottom and not sexual unless in that context.

    Given the meaning of smack in England I was surprised to learn that Kellogg's still brands its cereal as Smacks in the U.K.

    1. Also Canadian; I agree! You might get "a smack upside the head" (sometimes said in jest, but abusive if carried out), and spanking is on the bottom. I certainly know the kiss & heroin definitions Lynne gave, but to me those are secondary examples of slang, not the primary meaning of smack.

      Also, I imagine spanking as being with the hand by default, but maybe just because I'm too young (27) to have experienced the age of corporal punishment with a paddle or other implement.

  6. I'll fourth that. (AmE, California) What about 'smack upside the head'? Is there a more homegrown phrase?

    Futher to dearieme's point, it is a little funny that the comparison is usually made between AmE and BrE, when CdnE is almost always the same as AmE, and ScE is often different to EngE, or so I hear.

    I once had a girlfriend slap me across the face in the heat of an argument. It was so different to my mild-mannered life up to that point that I just started laughing, which must have been weird for her.

  7. Lynne wrote:

    > So, there's little evidence that the AmE usage of spank for child-bottom-hitting is making its way into BrE.

    My Pocket Oxford Dictionary (4th ed, 1942) has for 'Spank': "Slap esp. on buttocks". The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (11th ed, 2004) has "slap with one's open hand or flat object, especially on the buttocks as a punishment".

    Neither definition refers to the word as being either slang or as American, and this Englishman has heard and read the word all his life (and throughout Britain and the Commonwealth) with the bottom-punishing meaning. So Lynne's conclusion is frankly puzzling because there is no need for the word with that comnnotation to make its way into BrE; it's been here a long time.

  8. Except that (a) it's not used much (see the evidence from articles about the 'anti-smacking' debate), and (b) the OED isn't acknowledging it yet. My conclusion is that it'll be interesting to see what the OED does do with it...

  9. I have always been aware of ‘spank’ and understood it to mean smacking on the bottom. However, ‘smack’ has been the word of choice in my BrE household for a minor physical punishment for a child. As I was growing up the ‘smack’ had almost the same level of ‘ceremony’ as described earlier for AmE Spanking. A smack was administered formally, after a warning and discussion about what I had done wrong. It was either to my backside, or to my bare thigh close to my backside (I was in shorts up until I was 11) and was delivered with a bare hand.

    It is interesting to see that ‘Smack’ sounds more abusive to American ears. On a few occasions I have seen a child ‘cuffed around the ear’ on a casual basis, with a comment like ‘Now shut up, I am talking’ as the explanation. That, in my BrE eyes isn’t a smack, it is child abuse.

    However, to my BrE sensitivities – the thought of spanking with something in hand (ie a paddle) sounds awfully abusive … It reminds me of days when whipping, caning and belting were acceptable. Using something to stop the feeling in the spankers hand just makes it too easy to hit harder, and removes any consequences for the spanker.

    I suppose that is tempered by my personal view that corporal punishment is generally a ‘wrong’ thing. I decided many years ago, not to spank*my son. It was a very conscious decision based on the principle that, as a role model to my son I did not want to appear as a man who would use force and violence to get his own way.

    * Although I said that ‘smack’ was the word of choice in my family - I used Spank in that last sentence naturally, I quite surprised myself there.

  10. I take it that the British don't get hit in the smacker (i.e., kisser), or pay fifty smacker(oo)s for £50 items.

  11. jhm - those are terms I am familiar with, but wouldn't use.

    If I heard someone using them (from either side of the Atlantic)I think I would assume they were trying to be 'clever' or were being very '50's hip'. I never knew they were in any sort of every day usage :)

  12. So does Smack only refer to hitting the bottom in BrE? I would assume if that is the case, then Slap is the preferred word for hitting across the face or somewhere else.

    Smacking is just a generally more violent image, mainly because often it is put in the context of someone being "Smacked around," basically meaning being lightly beat up.

    To the AmE ear, I would bet that most people would be in favor of a law that banned smacking your children, but allowed spanking.

  13. No, smack does not only refer to hitting the bottom, although as I said in the post, it prototypically does refer to bottom-smacking in the case of children. For instance, this columnist refers to smacking on the hand or bottom.

    You cannot in AmE spank someone on the hand--that would be a slap.

    The point here is, of course, that smack sounds completely different to AmE ears than to BrE ears.

  14. Correction: it wasn't the columnist who referred to hands and bottoms, but a commenter on the site.

  15. Spanking to my ear, sounds like what people do in prvate (as in the film Secretary).

    "To give a good spanking" is a way of saying someone is beaten conclusively, in a competitive/sporting context.

    eg. "We lost 26-3, we got completely spanked."

  16. Lynne wrote:
    > it's not used much (see the evidence from articles about the 'anti-smacking' debate)

    Then it may be that the Guardian articles are not a particularly useful source of evidence for this discussion. The words 'smacking' and 'slapping' are more general than 'spanking', in that they can refer to striking any part of the body, whereas 'spanking refers only to the backside. Since the debate appears to be whether children should be struck in any way at all, there would be no need to use the more specific term 'spanking'.

    In contrast, if you look at the Times Online site and search for 'spanking debate' you will find sufficient evidence for 'spanking' being used in the bottom-smacking sense (likewise if you do a more general search for the same term on Google UK).

    As for the OED, I can't see why they should now be uncertain about a word which they were sure about at least as early as 1942. Perhaps we ought to write to them and ask them?

  17. In American usage, I would not be surprised to hear "smack" used as a threat to a child by its mother -- "I'll smack you if you don't be still" or "One more word out of you and I'll give you a smack". My dad used to say "a smack in the kisser", which meant a slap, not kiss. This was understood to be an idle threat, never carried out, though spankings on the bottom were.

  18. Perhaps the difference in usage reflects a difference in practice: is American parental chastisement administered exclusively to the buttocks while England targets a wider range of child body parts? As an Irish child (c.4-10) I was (very occasionally) slapped/smacked with a wooden spoon across the hand. Slapping/smacking on the bottom was for younger children
    (c.2-4) as a public humiliation and expression of parental authority with little or no physical pain resulting. I agree that smack sounds worse than spank; but to me spank sounds like a fake punishment, a mime of smacking to satisfy the formal requirement for punishment without actually inflicting any pain. This may of course be interference from the sex-play usage...

    If you want to emphasise the event as a deliberate infliction of injury, neither spank nor smack is appropriate: slap is the word, or perhaps belt.

    Although the OED is now on its third edition, most of the text is essentially unchanged since the first edition, published in installments 1884-1928. The second edition (1989) just collated this with the material from the later supplements; these supplements had added new words, and new senses to old words, but did not amend the definition of senses already defined in the first edition. Thus a lot of entries in the current OED have not been revised in a century. The third edition is a thorough revision, but has so far covered only MNOP, so it will be a while before the entry for Spank is updated.

  19. I am not an native English speaker (I am sorry if my English is not good, I will try to explain my thoughts in the best way) and live in a country where English is not spoken and what I know in English I have learnt it using dictionaries.But real life speech is not like in dictionaries.The real life speech is flexible and changeable so it is interesting to read all this comments about the meaning of the words in the real life.
    I would like to ask the following questions about the verb "Spank"(in my native language there is not such a verb, if I want to say "Spank" I will have to say something like "Slap/Smack on the bottom") :
    1. Is "Spank" only about the bottom or sometimes this verb can be used for other parts of the body?
    2. I have seen the expression "Spanking on the bottom"- in this case it is clear that the bottom is slapped/smacked but if "Spank" is used without any specified words like "on the bottom" will there be any misunderstanding about the part of the body? If an native English speaker hears the verb "Spank", will he/she think of the bottom as a target of a punishment or it is possible to think of other parts of the body?
    I mean:If a native English speaker wants to explain the act of "smacking on the bottom" to another native English speaker and uses only the verb "spank", will the second one understand what the first one means or there can be misunderstanding about which part of the body is a target of the punishment?

    3. It is interesting to know the specific meanings of "spank" and smack" in Australian or South African English? Can you tell me something about this?

  20. To me (Northeast AmE speaker), a smack would leave a bruise, a spank probably wouldn't, though it would hurt. The kind of hit that is intended more to surprise a child away from doing something (like hitting a hand away from a red-hot pan) might be a "swat".

    Oddly, debates on corporal punishment of children usually get talked about in terms of "spanking" in the US, even though it's understood that people are talking about all forms of hitting. "Smacking" would be pretty inflammatory; the equivalent of "beating".

  21. Another aspect is premeditation: in the US a smack is delivered impromptu, while a spanking is an orchestrated event involving waiting until your father gets home, turning the brat over one's knee, etc.

  22. I will try to answer to ilian`s questions.I am not a native English speaker either.I am Russian.
    In my opinion "spanking" mainly means "bottom smacking" but I think that some people use the word with more expanded meaning uncluding other parts of the body, for instance the thighs; but if I am right you will never hear "spanking" for the face.
    I think you cannot say "spank in the face".
    Regarding your second question about the expression "spanking on the bottom" I am not sure about the correct answer.The verb "spank" itself means "To slap/smack on the bottom" and probably there is no need to use additional words like "on the bottom" but as I said before some people use the verb with more expanded meaning and probably when they hear the word "spank/spanking" they will not be absolutely sure if it is exactly "bottom smacking" or not.
    Maybe the expression "spanking on the bottom" is ok.
    In conclusion I would say the following:If asked ( what is "spanking"?)probably most native Ebglish speakers would say that "spanking" is "bottom smacking".
    I am really would like to hear what native English speakers think.
    And since those are linguistic questions I would like to hear what Lynneguist think.

  23. For me, spanking is definitely on the bottom, and the phrase spank on the bottom is just an emphatic way of stating it.

  24. Yes. As a native BrE speaker - Spanking is always on the bottom, for me too.

  25. Another BrE native: If I was behaving extremely badly as a child I was smacked; it was usually to the back of the thigh. I've never used the word spank apart from in the sexual context.

  26. I agree with Matt. I think smack means to slap someone in the face with an open hand. At least in my part of America (southwest) saying something like, "Watch your mouth or I'm gonna to smack you (upside the head)." seems common enough. Spank is a smack on the bottom.

  27. Another thought. I can smack myself in the head by walking into something--like a low branch or door. With spank or slap, I infer an outside agent (unless I'm slapping my knee in laughter).

    Also when I hear the word smack, I think of a sharp noise against flesh, even with the non-violent connotations of a kiss, or smacking one's lips in anticipation of some culinary delight--for instance, the cereal mentioned above, Sugar Smacks.

  28. I'm with Matt..."smack" is almost always used on the face unless it's "upside the head." The work "smack" implies violence, but "upside the head" a lesser form. So to my American ears, it sounds like the British are approving slapping their children across the face as a form of discipline. Pairing the word "smack" with "child" would NEVER, EVER conjure up a kissing or affectionate image.

  29. My reaction to hearing or reading the word "spanking" has always instantly identified an upturned bottom as the focus of attention. The abolitionists' zeal notwithstanding, "spanking" has never been a euphemism for "hitting." My own lifelong sense of the word involves someone's buttocks being methodically tended to in ritualistic fashion; in other words, "spanked." To define spanking as hitting is to make no distinction between a concerto and a kazoo.

    "Smacking," while it strongly suggests a bottom being targeted, has historically had more anatomical leeway. Naughty children have had their legs "smacked." And the simple threat of a "smack" could just as easily translate as a slap across the face.

    "Do you want me to turn you over my knee?" succeeds in threatening a spanking without any direct mention of the undertaking. I grew up with that iconic image of child discipline embedded in my brain.

    A bottom can certainly be "smacked" with all of a traditional spanking's soundness. But to me, smacking rides on spanking's descriptive coattails.

  30. Spank seems to me (southern English) to be perfectly standard usage for a formal punishment involving smacking the buttocks; a smack is (unqualified) an open-handed blow/slap anywhere, either as formal punishment (esp. a smack on the back of the hand), or in anger. In southern English/cockney/mockney/estuary it could also, slangily, be a blow with a fist as well ("'E comes over to me giving it all that, so I gives 'im a smack in the mahf, innit.")

  31. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. Please note that I am talking about language usage, not advocating corporal punishment. In Scots dialect, the word “skelp” was used the way most commentators use smack. Growing up, both smack and spank were terms I read, but never heard. I think I would only ever use spank for the buttocks, and smack more generally. I was a bit shocked when I heard tv characters - usually Londoners - talk about “giving him a good smack” when referring to one adult hitting another. Up to that point, I had only ever heard it used in connection with punishing children In my (possibly faulty) memory, this usage started to become common when the BBC started screening Eastenders (1985).

    It used to be common parlance to talk about giving a child a “clip around the ear”. I am a bit surprised that no other BrE user has commented on the usage “upside” the head. Fodder for another post? Other corporal punishments terms are now routinely used figuratively, to mean a telling off. These include a rap on the knuckles, and a slap on the wrist.

    Just realised that “telling off “ might be BrE. How about “dressing down”, or is that also BrE?


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