johns, punters and ponces

Grover and I went out for a lovely lunch with our friend Maverick the other day, and now I find that her pseudonym creates a linkage problem. Do I link to her blog (as is my usual courtesy to people-I-mention-who-have-blogs) or to our previous discussion of AmE/BrE differences in the use of the word maverick? The solution of course is to make a roundabout way of doing both, as I have in this paragraph, but I'll have to (chiefly AmE) figure out a less verbose way of doing it before she points out something else to blog about...

So, Maverick got some good deal on magazine subscriptions and has started reading Time magazine. Though she receives the European edition, she finds that it doesn't make much allowance for the fact that its readers won't necessarily be speakers of American English. So, she was confused by the following sentence (or one like it--not sure if the on-line edition is exactly the same) in an article about recently shamed New York governor Elliot Spitzer:
Just last year, Spitzer had signed a law that lengthened jail time for johns from three months to as much as a year.
Maverick had assumed that john meant 'pimp', and so she was led astray, as it actually means 'prostitute's client'. Now, I think this means that Maverick doesn't watch Law and Order or CSI or any of the other 'gritty' American murder mysteries that are on (UK) Channel Five all the time. The OED marks this meaning of john (there are many more that I don't want to get into here) as 'orig. U.S.', meaning that it has made inroads into BrE.

Maverick and later Better Half tried to think of a BrE word for a man who pays for sex and came up dry. I've heard (BrE) punter used in this way, and there are thousands of examples of it on the web, including:
Meanwhile, lads' magazines continue their assault on British women with articles that aggressively blur the line between girlfriend/boyfriend and prostitute/punter relationships. -- Katherine Viner in the Guardian

The trio all use a website where "punters" - the men who visit prostitutes - go to discuss their encounters. -- Finlo Rohrer in BBC News magazine

Better Half and Maverick both protested, "But punter really means 'gambler'." Yes, I've heard that before, but it's a tough word to (orig. AmE) get a handle on (especially as a newcomer to these isles) because its meanings slide all over the place. The first sense that the OED (draft revision Sept 2007) has for it, dating back to the 18th century, is 'A person who plays against the bank at baccarat, faro, etc.' It then was generali{s/z}ed (as early as the 19th century) to mean any type of gambler and from there to mean someone who pays for something, and particularly a man who pays for a prostitute's services. As a side note, in AmE punter is one who (AmE) punts (drop-kicks the ball) in (American) football, and in the UK another kind of punter is one who propels a punt (a kind of flat-bottomed boat) down a river. The latter kind of punter is not marked as BrE in dictionaries, but much more punting goes on in the UK than in the US.

Back to john, in the OED, it defines the prostitute-client sense as:
A ponce; the client of a prostitute. slang (orig. U.S.).
Now, ponce is another difficult word. But according to the self-same OED (draft revision Mar 2007), it means 'pimp', not 'client':
derogatory slang (chiefly Brit.).
1. A man who lives on money earned by another person (esp. a woman); a kept man. Also: a person (usually a man) who lives off a prostitute's earnings; a pimp.
But I've only heard it used to mean:
2. depreciative. An effeminate or affected man or boy; (also) a male homosexual.
Searching for ponce + prostitute on, I can only find evidence of it meaning 'pimp', and not 'john/punter'. So, it looks to me like a bad AmE-to-BrE translation in the OED--they haven't got(ten) to the Js yet in the current revision--but I expect this will be changed!

Postscript (1 April--but not an April Fool's joke!): Here's another example of punter, and how easy it is for a newcomer to misinterpret it. It's from The Guide (The Guardian's entertainment listings section, 29 Mar-4 Apr 2008), in a listing for Lucy Porter's stand-up show:
As she said of one of her younger punters, "I want to rip his clothes off -- but only so I can wash and iron them."
Now, they are not claiming that Porter turns tricks, though I originally thought that it meant someone she'd taken home (since they'd just said that "her specialist subject is relationships"), but Better Half was quick to dispel this impression by explaining to me that the 'younger punter' is a member of her audience.


  1. My - admittedly rusty - memory tells me the first use of "ponce" used to turn up quite frequently in the old Euston Films-type dramas (Minder, Fox, Prospects, other London crime series from the 70s/early 80s etc). The strange and exotic slang words appealed greatly to us young Aussies at the time IIRC :) and were for a time a regular feature of playground life.

  2. In AmE college student, and specifically MIT, slang, "punt" also means "procrastinate", from "put off" (as in a ball or boat). At MIT, the opposite of "punt" is "tool", but although "punt" is understood, if uncommon, at west-coast universities, "tool" is not.

  3. What about the girls/woman themselves?

    AmE has lots of crude nasty names for prostitutes (pro's being one of the nicest, whores, or ho's not to bad..

    but what about 'being on the stroll?' or on the game?(or is it in the game?)

    euphemisms, like escort exist too, and (there are pick up lines--I was in 40's before i learned "wanna date?" was the most common (but then, they never asked me!)

  4. Then there's nonce, meaning "sex offender" or "child molester"; the etymology is apparently unclear, but might be connected to "ponce" and/or "nancy".

  5. OfTroy, that would be a different post...but at least some of the ones you mention are not particularly AmE and would be understood in either country. While ho definitely originated in AmE, it's pretty much made it around the world due to pop culture.

    I forgot to mention BrE kerb crawler and AmE curb crawler, which both mean a man who drives slowly along a street/road where street prostitutes look for work, in order to pick one of them up. It's not that it's a different term in the two countries, but the spelling difference for curb/kerb is one of those odd ones that is not part of a more general pattern. (Curb is the earlier spelling, as the word comes from Romance languages, but they both go back centuries.) Gutter crawler is another variant, which is not marked in the OED as AmE, but which is mentioned in H.L. Mencken's The American Language (Supplement One).

  6. I (ScE) used to have a friend who would refer to prostitutes' clients as "John Hunters," which clearly appears to be a rhyming slang link between "john" and "punter." This particular friend had once found employment as a prostitute's minder, so I am forced to assume he knew what he was on about. Granted I only have his word for it that he was a minder, but there was nothing I knew about him which suggested he was lying about any of it.

  7. British usage - I think a prostitute's client is a 'Tom' over here - or at least in London (see The Bill on TV); punter now refers to clients or purchasers of tickets, such as to a concert or a show - or airline passengers (that's what the cabin crew call them).
    I've always wondered where 'ponce' fits in - in the 1960s, 'poncey' was a derogatory word for an over-dressed young man, perhaps wearing a floral shirt and aftershave, and it had the feeling of 'pansy' without necessarily implying homosexuality.

  8. My American ears first heard "punter" in the non-boat sense on the UK TV series "Lovejoy" (or some such) wherein the main characters were antique dealers and the people whom they could entice to purchase their wares were the "punters." My impression of this usage was kind of an extrapolation (so to speak) of a bunch of poorly directed boats on a river (never having actually seen punts in action) giving the term the connotation of a kind of wayward, hapless hoi polloi.

    I'm rather disappointed that I have to now think of prostitution when I encounter this word.

  9. Biochemist, the "tom" is the prostitute, not the client.

    "Ponce" as a verb now has the general meaning of obtaining something from someone while giving nothing in return, as in "poncing" drinks in a pub.

    To "ponce about", however, is to behave in an ineffectual manner, achievuing little or nothing.

  10. Yes, "tom" for prostitute is also odd rhyming slang, my wonder being who Tom Moore might have BEEN.

  11. There's an old story about a magistrate/JP who has convicted a defendant of pimping, but can't remember the appropriate sentence. When he asks a more senior colleague "How much do you give a ponce?", the older man replies "Never more than a shilling, m'boy!"

    Before reading this post, I understood "punter" to mean "customer, especially of an unsavo(u)ry business", which still seems to sum it up well.

  12. Ah, thanks terrycollmann, I had got it wrong. Glad to know it is rhyming slang - but who is Tom Moore? Not a slander on Sir Thomas More, I hope.

  13. Worth clarifying the "curb/kerb" distinction only applies to the "edge of the pavement/sidewalk" sense, as opposed to the generic "restrain(t)" sense. Hence "curb your dog" signs in the U.S. are confusing for Brits.

  14. The multiple senses of "punter" in BrE seem to be similar to the multiple senses of "player" in AmE (maybe also BrE?). I have the sense that a "player" may be seen to be more in control of the situation than a "punter", though.

  15. I'm not aware of any common names for the client of a prostitute in Australian English (perhaps a reflection of the associates I keep more than anything). Punt however has made a valuable contribution to AusE via the Australian Football term "dropkick punt" referring to a particular type of kick. That term has made its way via rhyming slang (which hopefully will not need expansion here) to the common insult "dropkick" for an ineffectual or unpleasant person.

    The gambling sense of punt and punter is still very much alive with references to "on the punt" [gambling], "take a punt" [have a guess], etc very common.

  16. I've also heard "punter" used to mean "a mark," someone who will be easy to take in with a sales pitch. Also in the construction "a pure punter." (We're fond of the word "pure" up here in Glasgow).

  17. To my BrE ear, punter doesn't carry any strong connotation of soliciting prostitution. What it does carry is the connotation of a customer of an industry where there's some kind of an imbalance between buyers and sellers.

    Someone at a shop wouldn't normally be a punter, for instance, because a lot of the customers also work in shops, and vice versa. Someone at a casino or a bookie, however, is getting bilked. Perhaps the semantics broadened from a purely gambling etymology. For instance, there's a history of the Sun tabloid called Stick It Up Your Punter!, which is partly a play on a famous Sun headline, but also refers to tabloid journalists' habit of calling their readers punters. This gels neatly with biochemist's "ticket purchaser" usage. The BBC AmE/BrE dictionary defines punter thus: "a paying customer or audience member. Essentially, one who is part of the regular classes".

  18. New reader here, enjoying the blog so far.

    Thought you might find it amusingly coincidental that there is a flat-bottomed boat called a Jon boat...not sure if that's AmE only or not!

  19. Here in Denver, the city government had a short-lived campaign to shame prostitution clients. On the government public access channel, they would show the mug shots of those that had been arrested for soliciting prostitution. The TV show was called "John TV."

    I've always felt somewhat sorry for the name "John" since it can either mean someone trying to pick up a hooker or be a euphemism for the toilet. It is somewhat surprising that it remains such a common name and hasn't gone the way of "Dick."

  20. My husband came up with the word "trick" meaning the client of a prostitute - although I think I would be right in saying that it refers to a current client rather than a man who makes a habit of visiting prostitutes. The word can also refer to an act of prostitution.
    Whether it's British English or American English we were unable to say, and the only piece of evidence I can come up with is its use in a Dire Straits song ("Your Latest Trick"), but that's hardly conclusive.

  21. Even though this is totally unrelated to the main topic, this is a blog about language. The reference to punt as a "drop kick" is not entirely clear. In US football a drop kick is one where the ball is released and actually touches the ground before foot contact whereas a "punt" is where the ball is dropped onto the foot directly. It was a common site in the early days of American football to see the drop kick and I do believe that it was revived recently one time by a current professional player.

  22. Its the same in Rugby Football. A drop kick the ball is held in the hands, dropped, touches the ground and is kicked. A punt is ythe same, except that the ball is kicked before it strikes the ground.

    The difference is significant in Rugby - you can score points from a drop kick - you can't score from a punt.

  23. Ironic to raise ponce in a post made on Easter Day, since it's the Anglicised form of Pontius.

    It one of those insteresting words that seems to have shifted from specific to general and back to specific:

    1. A nasty indivdidual (Ponce/Pontius Pliate)
    2. Any nasty individual
    3. A specific type of nasty individual

    Bugger (originally Bulgar) has gone one stage further:

    1. A specific type of nasty individual (Bulgarians being heretics from the point of view of mediaeval Western Europeans)
    2. Any nasty individual
    3. A specific type of nasty individual (one indulging in deviant sexual practices)
    4. Any nasty individual (contemporary usage)

  24. However the

    Online Etymology Dictionary says

    1872, slang term, chiefly British, originally "a pimp, a man supported by women" (pouncey in same sense is attested from 1861), of unknown origin, perhaps from Fr. pensionnaire "boarder, lodger, person living without working." Meaning "male homosexual" first attested 1932 in Auden.


  25. Great post. I wrote a post based on yours but also looking at how this type of vocabulary is handled in Dutch. Here is a link

  26. re Ginger Yellow:

    "tabloid journalists' habit of calling their readers punters."

    Thanks for mentioning this! This is the usage I've come across first and it confused me greatly when I then looked 'punter' up in the dictionary only to find that the meaning I got from the context had nothing to do with the definition in the dictionary.

  27. What an amazing array of meanings and delicate connotations from a single short word!

    I wanted to draw additional attention to meanings related to "put off" or "procrastinate," as noted by Theo as "college student, specifically MIT, slang." In my East Coast Amer (but certainly no longer collegiate) idiom "to punt" may mean to quit, give up, run out -- kind of like "ditch." "Where's Tod?" "He was going to meet us at the bar, but I guess he punted." There's also an aspect of passing something troublesome on to the next person. "What was the answer?" "Oh, I punted -- told him to call the Help Desk."

  28. In New Zealand English (generally very close to BrE) this is the only way I've heard "punter" used:

    "The BBC AmE/BrE dictionary defines punter thus: "a paying customer or audience member. Essentially, one who is part of the regular classes"." (Ginger Yellow)

    No negative connotations whatsoever.

  29. Punter - a mountain guide's client.

  30. Just to add some interesting etymology, Michael Quinion has recently blogged this on WorldWideWords: Punt

  31. Trik is not the client or the prostitute, it is the Act. as in in AmE we would say a Hooker (prostitute) is turning triks.

  32. Mindy

    Trik is not the client

    The expressionTricks ain't walking gave rise to at least three blues and jazz songs. Most explicit was Lucille Bogan's record. It includes the lines:

    I need shoes on my feet : clothes on my back
    Get tired of walking these streets : all dressed in black
    Because tricks ain't walkin' : tricks ain't walkin' no more
    And I see four or five good tricks : standing in front of my door


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)