Fraser’s Phrases: ‘The Dog’s Bollocks’

It’s not going to be possible to explain this excitable phrase without a little vulgarity, so forgive me. We’ll also have to conduct a thorough examination of a word which appears, in it’s many varied uses, to be the slang equivalent of a Swiss army knife. So here goes:

“Bollocks” (not to be confused with the word “bollix,” meaning “to make a mess of”) is a fine old Anglo Saxon word, which means, among other things, testicles. “The dog’s bollocks” is a term which originally appears to have come out of the printing industry, and refers to the now-abandoned habit, when introducing a list, of putting a dash after a colon, to create this vivid shape :-

It is, therefore, a very early example of an emoticon. Presumably a smiley one, given the context in which it came to be used.

It wasn’t really until the post-war period that people started using it to mean “the very best,” in line with other expressions doing the rounds, such as “the cat’s pajamas” and “the bee’s knees.”

And of course, having gone as far as the dog’s bollocks, it’s only natural to extrapolate further, sometimes for decorum’s sake, and refer to the “mutt’s nuts,” the “puppy’s privates,” or even the “badger’s nadgers.”

However, this is not the end of the tale. Bollocks also means nonsense. So when the Sex Pistols released their album “Never Mind The Bollocks…Here’s The Sex Pistols,” they weren’t referring to genitals at all. It just means “put aside all of that other rubbish and pay attention to this.” And I know this is true because they had to go to court and defend their own album title, and they won. It’s officially not an obscene word. But it’s still awfully rude.

You can also use the word to dispute someone’s ridiculous claims, either by just saying “bollocks!” (much like an American would yell the BS word) or telling them they’re literally “talking bollocks.”

Made a hideous mistake at work? You’ve “dropped a bollock”

Or if something is broken beyond all repair, it’s bollocksed. Or you can go out of an evening and get bollocksed, and wake up in the morning bollocksed by a hangover, and in such a state of exhaustion you’d say you were completely…well you get the idea.

Then there’s bollocking, which is another word for being told off. As in, “I got in an hour late, and my dad gave me such a bollocking.”

You can also work your bollocks off, meaning to work very very hard, or freeze your bollocks off when it’s frosty, or strip stark bollock naked, or, when life is cruel, complain that your various problems are “a kick in the bollocks.”

And over in Ireland it’s also slang for someone who’s a bit of a windbag or a rogue, as a quick flick through any of the Dublin-based novels of Roddy Doyle will make abundantly clear.

In order to side-step the vulgarity, various soundalikes have been employed by wags attempting to say offensive things without acually saying them. So sometimes you hear of bosses (or barroom bores) saying they’ll give some rogue employee a “right rollocking,” or “a kick in the ballards.”

Designers of websites refer to “dog’s bollocks syndrome,” which ironically does not refer to web-content which is particularly amazing, it’s derived from the joke “why does a dog lick its bollocks? Because it can,” and refers to websites that have a lot of flashy functionality which they do not need.

Oh, and apparently there’s an Australian saying which also refers to a canine’s privates. It goes something like this: “Truth is like a dog’s bollocks, it’s pretty obvious where it is, if you only care to look.”

Which is kind of gross, and poetic, all at the same time.

Which British expressions leave you confused? Tell us here:

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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