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Fraser’s Phrases: Men Are From Mars, Blokes Are From Prison
Bloke has got to be one of the most well-known of British slang words, not least because it tends to find its way into the mouths of anyone who wants to have a crack at a English (meaning cockney) accent. Bloke (often wrongly pronounced “blawke” instead of “blow” with a k on the end, in case you’re thinking of giving it a go) and mate always seem to crop up.
And yet the weird thing is it’s a word which had its day in American life too. By rights, you should all still be using it.
Bloke began as a slang term among criminals derived from Romany slang, or even Shelta (a coded language shared by Irish and Welsh tinkers), which was common by the early 19th Century. As with the best of all slang, it resisted being written down for years, one of the earliest examples being within a letter written by the teenage housebreaker John Daly in 1829. It was submitted as evidence during his trial, although can’t have been of much use as he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
But the context was already fairly clear. As far as John Daly was concerned, a bloke was a fellow traveller, which in his case meant someone who was also on the road to bad intentions. Maybe one slightly further up the pecking order at first – Australian slang certainly carried the idea that a bloke was someone to look up to, as did the Royal Navy; sailors would refer to the commander of a ship as a bloke – but still a man doing a similar thing to yourself.
Meanwhile, over in the States, a bloke was a very different sort of person. Rather than being a peer or a mentor, the American bloke (or bloak) was someone of lower intelligence, and probably a criminal too. There’s a suggestion that this alternate use is down to a different origin for the word. The Dutch word bloc, meaning fool, or the Celtic ploc, meaning a big idiot, are both thought of as likely candidates.
Since then, the American meaning has largely died out, while the British and Australians have settled on the most common definition: a bloke is just a term for a man, of any status. Sometimes it gets hijacked into meaning the same thing as red-blooded male (ie heterosexual sports fan who enjoys beer), and sometimes it’s used to describe men in a dismissive way by someone who feels excluded from the bloke world: “oh he’s so blokey, y’know? A proper neanderthal.” But otherwise it’s a very balanced term.
The crucial difference is that the British don’t use it to speak directly to someone, and the Australians do.
So a British person would say “did you see that bloke fall over?” and an Australian will say “which of you blokes tripped him up?”
And a 19th Century American would say “what kind of bloke would do a thing like that?”