Exploring British profanity

Not long ago, someone in an online conversation said that as she gets older she has less “inclination to tolerate the presence of cockwombles.”

The presence of what?

The cockwomble in question was our local Member of Parliament, Scott Mann (the only people I name in this blog are public figures, but if you run for office, sorry, you’re fair game), so I went ahead hit Like. Then I headed for the internet to figure out what I’d agreed with.

According to the Register, “The origin of this very rude term is unclear, although it’s thought to have first surfaced on an online football forum. For those of you unfamiliar with the word, it has been summarised as someone ‘possessing properties of striking idiocy.’ “

The summary the Register’s quoting is on the b3ta dictionary. In case you need to know that.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Irrelevant photo: Tintagel Castle. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

But with something this absurd, no single definition is enough. And I wanted to know more about the word’s origin, so I followed a link that promised me the origins of nine “Great British” insults.

Just for the sake of unclarity, I should say that the site could have been promising great insults but could also have meant that they were mediocre insults from Great Britain. Its headline style capitalized most words—never mind which ones; it’s never quite as simple as it seems and you don’t really care, do you?—which meant that Great would get capitalized whichever meaning it had.

As it turned out, the site was a disappointment. Three of the insults were American as well as British (clodhopper; nincompoop; lummox), and cockwomble wasn’t one of the nine.

I love Google. It adds such a layer of pointlessness, to my life.

Anyway, I moved on and found a cycling forum (no, I have no idea; the tides of the internet sweep my intellectual raft to some very strange places) that had hosted (and not taken down) a discussion about the meaning of cockwomble. I came away convinced that no one can define it but that everyone will use it anyway.

Which leads me to ask: If no one can define an insult, is it possible to use it inaccurately? It’s too deep a question to go into here, but I raise it in case you want to give it some thought yourself. As an editor, I saw such gloriously misused words that I started a collection, and soon friends were adding to it. My favorite came from a college philosophy paper: “When we contemplate the obesity of the universe, we know there must be a god.”

After reading that, I understood our cats better. They weren’t lying around doing nothing; they were contemplating the obesity of the universe. I could never tell whether ornot they believed in god.

But back to the cycling forum. Highlights of the discussion include—.

Sorry, but I have to interrupt myself again. The contributors were coyly reluctant to swear but were convinced that if they substituted an asterisk for a U no one would know they were swearing.

Is U a bad letter or is something else going on here?

At the exact same time, they believed that everyone would understand what they meant, and these two beliefs cancel each other out so thoroughly that holding them both at the same time should make the believer’s head explode, but that must be a delayed effect, because once that happens you can’t post anymore. And these people were posting.

Anyway, the most vivid definitions were: “a less sweary f*ckMuppet,” “somebody in charge of a department of a local authority” (translation for those who need it: authority here means government), and “anyone who disagrees with you on an internet forum.”

So much for the wisdom of bikers. Or cyclists, as I think people say here.

Collins English Dictionary defines a cockwomble it as a Scottish football administrator. (“Approval status: pending investigation.” Um, yeah, I’d say.)

My search (I only do this, folks, so you don’t have to) then led me to Buzzfeed. How did I get there? By following a come-on that said, “Know your bawbag from your wazzock.” Well, I didn’t know my bawbag from my wazzock, so I clicked through and learned that, being of the female persuasion, I don’t have a bawbag. I understand that many of the people who possess them can’t imagine life without them, but any number of us manage quite well without them.

Do I resent bawbag owners who can’t imagine that every random stranger they meet on the internet might not have one on hand? You bet your ass I do, but not enough to spend much time on it. Especially since bawbag might be used the way cunt is in Britain. In other words, it may be one of those miraculous and logic-defying insults that’s applies to any gender you can think of, even though it’s about as gender specific as you can get. In which case, I can use one as easily as the next guy, so maybe I do need to know it from my wazzock.

But this is all kind of academic since it’s Scottish and I’m not likely to hear it much down here in Cornwall. And if that makes me sound defensive, it’s because I don’t want to dent my reputation for the sparkling use of profanity. I’ve sworn ever since I understood the words. Or before I understood the words, if you want the truth. What I understood was their power. Now that I’m 603, though, I apparently look like someone who wouldn’t swear, which goes to show you how deceptive looks can be and adds an element of (a) hilarity or (b) shock to the exercise.Either one’s fine by me.

But I should stop bragging and tell you what a wazzock is. It’s a northern word for an idiot, so it’s not exactly swearing. We do have idiots in Cornwall, in roughly the same proportion as you’ll find them in the rest of the world, but we don’t seem to have wazzocks. Which is kind of a pity. It’s a great word.

So I learned something, but it wasn’t about cockwombles. They weren’t mentioned.

In a final burst of intellectual curiosity, I looked up womble, because I still wanted to understand the word’s origin. A womble, it turns out, is a furry, pointy-nosed creature that lives in a burrow and helps the environment by collecting rubbish and recycling it. In case it’s not already clear, wombles are fictional. They were created by Elisabeth Beresford and apparently escaped her books and took refuge on TV.

Maybe you need to have spent a few years watching the wombles to understand the insult.

Periodically, someone me asks why, after ten years in Britain, I still sound so American. My answer is usually that I don’t pick up accents in English, and that’s true as far as it goes. But it’s also true that if I did pick up accents, at my age the best I’d manage would be a kind of mid-Atlantic accent and vocabulary.

That means that if there’s a way to misuse cockwomble, I’d misuse it. And if there isn’t, I’d misuse some other word I’d just gotten hold of and wanted to show off. I’d contemplate the obesity of the universe. I’d mistake my nonexistent bawbag for my all-too-existent inner wazzock. Because swear words are rooted deeply in the culture. You can’t listen for ten minutes and get them right.

A belated note here for anyone who dislikes swearing. If you’ve gotten this far. I respect your feelings, but I don’t share them. For me, swearing’s an integral part of any language, and what’s considered to be swearing depends on each culture’s taboos. The whole subject is fascinating.

I can swear a bit in Spanish, and a bit less in French and Greek. (My Greek vocabulary consists of something like ten words, so you should be impressed that I know anything this useful, thanks.) But if I get the words wrong in a foreign language, or use them in an odd way, my accent will explain my absurdity and somebody will have a good laugh—and I’ll join in if I figure out what the joke is, which I probably won’t. But in English, my profanity has its roots in the U.S. of no-cockwombles A. I understand American swearing.

British swearing, though? Not really And you can’t use an insult unless you have a feel for its meaning, its context, its impact.

I’m not assimilated enough for that. So it is with great sadness that I report the following: I will not be calling our MP a cockwomble.

103 thoughts on “Exploring British profanity

  1. The cycling forum users you speak off weren’t being coy – if it is the one I am thinking and used to be a member of. The owner of the site, deeming it as ‘a family site’ has set a filter for common swear words, necessitating much invention to work around. Asterisks are the least inventive. For example, the filter automatically changes typing ‘shit’ into displaying ‘shoot’. If you type cunt’ it changes to ‘daffodil’. Regulars now just type the substitute words in the first place, making it now an extreme insult to call someone a daffodil that is full off shoot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Daffodil? Daffodil? (I could keep going, but I’ll stop there.) I’d love to understand that thinking that made that connection.

      Or maybe it’s more fun not to know. Anwway, I can see where a challenge like that would would be too much to resist. Thanks for providing the key. I don’t even own a bike, but I may drop by and plant a few bulbs.

      Like

  2. You’ve done it again Ellen !!! … Tickled my fancy !!! … If you can live to be 603 without a Bawbag, mines coming off first thing tomorrow !!! You are now officially my favourite Blogger, not because of Bawbags and cockwombles, but the sheer quality of your content…1st class, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now there’s a comment I’ll treasure. Thanks. And spare that bawbag. You’ll probably want it. For something.

      What exactly do you do with the things? (No–don’t answer. I had to ask, but I don’t honestly want to know.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good choice. I try not to use words I don’t understand, which is why I swear so often. I loathe the almost-swearing online words like @ss and $h!t, what’re we, twelve? Not even a good argument, that — twelve-year-old children know plenty of curse words.
    Great post, I enjoyed the meandering :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • A neighbor whose son is at the mostly babbling but using the occasional real word stage told me over the fence the other day that he heard his father use the word crap in a sentence (they try not to swear around him, but you know how it is), and damn if he didn’t pick that one word out of the entire sentence and repeat it. Several times. I swear, they sense the power in those words.

      Wise choice about not using words you don’t understand. Ignoring that rule was how that student ended up contemplating the obesity of the universe.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love learning the origins of words. I can only imagine how some words and phrases came to be insults, but I use them all the same. “cockwombles” sounds pretty mild, give what they’re calling our presidential candidates these days. Regardless of which one wins in November, I suspect we’ll be adding to the insult lexicon. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me, the most interesting thing about word origins (and meanings) is that the meanings change. Nice once meant finicky, and if I remember right went through any number of changes before turning into the fairly bland compliment we use today.

      Like

  5. OMG. “Inner wazzock” ? Yes I must find an opportunity to use that as in “He is expressing his inner wazzock.” or “She’s clearly in touch with her inner wazzock.” (Not meaning you.)

    I was also going to mention the use of replacement letters is to avoid automatic censorship systems. In the early days of the Intertubes the city of Scunthorpe had issues being heard.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A friend who works for the University of Essex has her emails blocked regularly for mentioning–gasp, wheeze–sex.

      And it’s okay–I am in touch with my inner wazzock and feel a deep sense of peace now. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I recently posted a review on the Which? Local web site of some work done for me by a plumber (I recommended him, by the way). One of the jobs he did was to replace the mains water stop-cock in my kitchen. Now this is a perfectly respectable, long-established British plumbing term for a particular type of tap (faucet for our US readers)) embedded in a pipe, said tap being used to shut off the water supply in an emergency. Now page of the site I was posting the review on was all about recommended plumbers, but would it accept my review? Nope. Rejected on the grounds of unsuitable content. You’ve guessed it – the word “cock”. The dumb software doing the vetting just couldn’t recognise that in this context “cock” was being used in a perfectly valid compound noun. And we’re consonantly being told that “intelligent” software is going take all our jobs. Really?

        The above sort of nonsense once resulted in all the residents of the town of Scunthorpe in Lincolnshire being prevented from signing up on-line for the services of a major web provider (might have been FaceBook, but don’t quote me on that).

        Liked by 1 person

        • You do have to love software. Since my partner’s partially sighted and we live where public transportation’s more of a good intention than a serious effort, we’ve been watching the development of self-driving cars with intense interest, and I have nightmares about where they’re going to take people. I have a feeling she’ll jump in happily and I’ll never see her again. She never does remember her phone….

          Great tales about Scunthorpe and the stopcock. Aren’t you glad you’re not trying to sell chickens online?

          Like

  6. I have some English friends and I have picked up some interesting terms from them. Of course, I will not put any of them in my commentary. Cockwomble sounds like an early morning kids show where these idiots are in costumes and sing all sorts of cheery songs. Another enjoyable post, Ellen!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Another fascinating post that held my attention to the very end!
    I wonder if an insult or a swear word is as much about the sound of the word as its meaning. Apparently the BBC used to have a list of allowed / banned words. On one occasion a broadcaster wanted to use the word “stumphole’. We all know the meaning (a hole in the ground left by removing a tree) but it seemed people were concerned that it sounded very offensive!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think you’re on to something here. Posthole would have a completely different impact. It’s that U again.

      Wild Thing and I saw a short play by Tony Kushner (a brilliant American playwright–the guy who wrote Angels in American) where a teenage girl (played when we saw it by a middle-aged man) goes into a monologue about how her father won’t let her swear but she can call him a buttmunch, because that’s not swearing, right? It’s an inspired piece of writing, and of acting, and I was completely convinced that buttmunch both was and wasn’t swearing.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I think I just might have peed myself a titch…it all started with a chuckle and slowly grew. I noticed no lack of the U in your swearing, but I hafta tell you cats don’t believe in god…they believe they are god…

    My son is always claiming I just make up words. Where he got that cockamamie idea from, I have no clue, but thank you for increasing my vocabulary – I now have a few more choice tidbits for him…

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Like your writing very much. Funny and inventive. Hundreds of years ago, I did an English degree, we studied Chaucer. To this day, I remember reading about a character who wore ‘plackettless pants’ ! Sounds so rude. Guess what it means ?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I really appreciate your tongue-in-cheek(ee) humour…and your approach to writing and sharing….so very entertaining…I have to admit, I might have mislabelled a couple of the British swear-words sound charming, if I hadn’t been warned ahead of time that they are profane :) For instance, “wazzock” sounds like something Dr. Seuss might have come up with :) Anyway, enough of my rambling …thanks for sharing :)

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Started with a chuckle and expanded here, too. One neat thing I’ve noticed with your blog is that the comments are nearly as funny as your post. Contemplating the obesity of the universe here as part of my religious rites (rights)?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the comments. They’re what keep me going. Glad you’ve added contemplating the obesity of the universe to your religious observances. (You’ll notice I’m ducking the issue of whether you have a right to your rites.)

      Like

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  13. I’m late to the game but just wanted to add an all-time favorite from the department of language disorder. This turned up when I was teaching Freshman English: “When I was 16 I was on the verge of turning a boy into a man.”

    Actually, I swore a lot while I was reading Freshman papers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You swore? I’d have been giggling hysterically.

      Well, no. I know they’re not all up to that standard of bad writing. One of my favorites was the title of a student paper: “When my Grandmother Pasted Away.”

      Decoupage, anyone?

      Like

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  16. The rabbit trails an internet search leads us down can be interesting. One funny thing is a nice word in one culture can be a curse word or dirty word in another. For instance, saying my last name in Korean sounds very similar to the word Dung. So, when I’m introduced, eyes go wide as if asking if I’m joking. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, that’s awkward. In Hawaii, mine sounds like the Hawaiian name for whites. Ouch.

      When the Chevy Nova was marketed in Mexico, it caused hysterical laughter, because if you separate the syllables you get no va–it doesn’t go.

      Liked by 1 person

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    • Four?? Really? What sort of impoverished English do you guys talk north of the border? Sorry–I don’t want to drop into chauvinism here, but we’re talking about swearing here, and I take my swearing seriously. Maybe you need to make it your mission to enrich it.

      Like

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  20. I hadn’t been aware of ‘cockwomble’ before I read your post, Ellen. But it made me laugh. I suspect all politicians are cockwombles. See, here’s the thing, we Brits tend to make up our own terms of offence – whatever comes to mind that seems to fit. Cock. Well, it has no brain and has a tendency to… er… wilt. Womble… that’s a small, soft (stuffed) toy that is about as bland and gormless as it gets. So… a brainless plushie… yeah, that just about sums up politicians (and local MPs more so, regardless of party). Here… watch a few seconds of this Wombles episode (you won’t want to watch much or you’ll turn into a soft toy yourself): https://youtu.be/bJXdGN6kWEg

    Oh and I have a word combination I use at home, (particularly in the kitchen as the layout of the room infuriates me), which is “fuck pig bollocks” It is pronounced with emphasis on the last two words (as though the pig and the bollocks were hyphenated.) My husband annoys me by pronouncing it with the fuck and pig hyphenated. Since I invented it, I should know how it’s pronounced. *grins*

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  23. Cockwombles was being used at least in the late 70’s in Southampton (england) as a slur on the stupid.
    Therefore it’s inaccurate to say it may first have appeared in an online football forum.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to know. The football forum assertion was all I could find by way of an origin for the word, and the people who trace word origins are almost inevitably dependent on written sources. In other words, that’s as far back as they could trace it. Thanks for going back a bit further.

      Like

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