2012 UK-to-US WotY: bollocks


For the first time in six years, I feel spoil{t/ed} for choice in deciding on a UK-to-US Word of the Year, but have a hard time thinking of even one good candidate for US-to-UK. After the 2011 UK mediafrenzy of anti-Americanismism, 2012 was the year of hoopla about Britishisms in America. There were many to choose from, and before announcing my less printable choice, I’d like to give special mention to stockist, which Nancy Friedman (Fritinancy), an excellent observer of commercial language, has noted on the rise in US contexts.

In many ways, I regret my choice of UK-to-US Word of the Year. In other ways, I felt I didn’t have a choice: the word kept coming up in American contexts this year. And it is:

bollocks
…which has a good AmE equivalent in bullshit. At least, the use that has come into AmE has that equivalent. In BrE the word means ‘testicles’, and by some extension it is used to mean ‘nonsense’. But as is often the case for loanwords, the people borrowing it are not always aware of its other meanings, including the anatomical one. Another use that doesn't seem to be  making its way across is the phrase the dog’s bollocks, which means something good—a cruder, stronger and less dated version of other animal metaphors like (orig. AmE) the bee’s knees or (now AmE) thecat’s meow. 

In support of bollocks as WotY we have Newcastle Brown Ale’s US (and not UK) advertising campaign:

We also have Richard Hammond of Top Gear promoting its use in the US, before admitting that it’s already started making its way into AmE:


Sightings in AmE start before 2012, of course. The Corpus of Historical American English, which has materials from 1810 to 2009 shows this trend in the last few decades (each column stands for a decade and each number is per approximately 25 million words).



The reason I’m not too excited about having bollocks as my WotY, despite feeling compelled to have it, is that it joins 2006’s wanker on my list of WotYs, which means that now one third of my UK-to-US WotYs are rather crude. SbaCL continues to secure its place in the list of websites banned in schools.

Are Americans really so crude that all we want is vulgar words from the UK? Absolutely not. But if you’ve ever been around exchange students, you’ll have discovered that it’s much easier to swear in one’s second language. British vulgarities are perceived as fun and quaint in American English. They are also perceived as fun and enjoyable by many British English speakers—swearing is a major British pastime.  

But it’s not seen as quaint, and the British are more aware of contexts in which these words should not be used. As I noted in a previous post, The Advertising Standards Authority's 'Deleting Expletives' [link is pdf] report of 2000 put bollocks as the 8th most offensive word according to the British public. Words lower in the 'severity of offence' list than bollocks include arsehole, twat and shit. Most British people I know would contest that ordering of offensiveness, with bollocks feeling pretty mild these days. But still, it's not something that would easily make its way onto a billboard.
So, the UK-to-US WotY for 2012 is bollocks. In so many ways. There’s still a little time to get a last-minute US-to-UK word nomination in. I hope to post it tomorrow.

27 comments

  1. This WotY made me smile. On the Cook Islands season of Survivor, Jonathan Penner told a fellow tribemate "that's bollocks, and you know it!" He was on the show again recently, and I've quoted this particular exclamation several times.
    SbaCL being banned in schools is bollocks, and they know it! ;)

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  2. The album title "Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols" was where I and I'd bet many other Americans first heard the word - that would be in the late 70s.

    My Midwestern dad sometimes used the word "ballocky" (naked), which I always thought was quaint. Is there a connection?

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  3. Etymologically the BrE noun bollocks is the same as the AmE verb bollix 'screw up', and is pronounced the same way by most Americans (those who have the Weak Vowel Merger).

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  4. I'm away from my books at the moment, but 'ballocky' does seem to be related, according to this book Shakespeare's Bawdy

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  5. Last-minute nomination for US-UK WotY: Festivus, which I had never heard of until this year, but seems ubiquitous on Facebook, including among several British friends.

    And "stockist" has not been used in the USA until recently? Seriously? What have they said instead? Such a necessary word, I would have thought.... but what do I know?

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  6. Oh, and PS. Happy Christmas, Lynne and family, and to all the "regulars" on here.

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  7. This is hilarious! I showed this to my son who has had the conversation where he asked the American if he knew what he had just said. Of course, the American had no idea .........

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  8. Thanks for the honorable mention, Lynne!

    Mrs. Redboots: The AmE equivalents of "stockists" are "locations," "retailers," "where to find us," "store locator," or simply "stores." "Stockist" suggests hipster pretension, as does the gaining-in-popularity "opening hours." (In the US we just say "hours.")

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  9. The British are widely seen by Americans as the most polite, genteel and refined people on Earth (with the possible exception of the Japanese), so it's not surprising that Americans would not consider a typically British expression to be particularly rude. The British don't have any rude words, after all.

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  10. The related verb bollix "botch or bungle" is mainly US, though I've heard it in Ireland. Marked merely "Informal" (rather than "Vulgar Slang") by the American Heritage Dictionary.

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  11. I've seen "bollocks" in novels (British) for many years, equating it with the common American "balls!" to mean "nonsense." It's emphatic, and less coy than the initialization "BS (bullshit)," but I've yet to hear it on the street (New Jersey).

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  12. Mrs. Redboots, I (born/raised/live in California) had to read the comments on this post to find out what "stockist" meant. I'd never heard of it before.

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  13. Midwest, we use bollocks for either bullshit, or for testicles both. But it has been use for a very long time, I want to say at least back to my childhood in the 80's. not new at all.

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  14. what is a "stockist?"

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  15. A shop - or chain- that stocks a given item. You could google,for instance, "Accurist watches stockists" for a list of retailers where you could buy Accurist watches.

    Isn't it extraordinary how words come up that are in normal daily use in one country and unknown in the other, and we simply don't know that they are not!

    Happy Christmas!

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  16. I, also, am a native Californian, and I, also, would not understand "stockist" if not for reading this blog.

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  17. Huh, that's weird, I've never heard of the worst "stockist" until now.

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  18. Thanks Mrs. Redboots, I think we call it a retailer. "see a retailer near you!"

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  19. bollock/s is a very blokeish word - two further contexts would be in [referring to being totally nude] 'stark bollock naked; and [being sternly reprimanded] 'he gave me a right bollocking'. Think rugby players in the pub after a game.

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  20. We use both "stockist" and "retailer", probably just-not-quite interchangeably. You might click on a link for "stockists" on a given website, and then be told: "Product may be obtained from the following retailers:" and a list. "Retailers", now I come to think about it, is more about the name of the shop rather than what it sells.

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  21. Remember the old equation:
    Bullocks plus Ballocks equals Bulls

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  22. I always heard it as "A bullock is a bull without bollocks!"

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  23. How I learned what bollocks means: 1977, my sister and I, two small-town American teenagers, had just moved to London. The Sex Pistols album being banned is all over the news. We're on the tube, reading a newspaper, and my sister turns to a fellow passenger and says, "Excuse me, sir, what are bollocks?" He turned amazingly red, and said nothing. We looked at each other and at the same time realized what it meant.

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  24. World Wide Words has covered the (lack of) connection to Willy Wonka here: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pol1.htm

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  25. Thanks Lynneguist, but I think you put this post on the wrong chat :)

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  26. bollocks can be used in so many ways aswell though, 'got a right bollocking' is a telling off, 'bollocksed it up' means screwed it up.

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  27. I'm with John Cowan, I've heard bolix in the sense of screw up since I was a kid--ah, that would be 60-odd years ago. "I bolixed it up." That's in the Southeast US.

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