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  1. The Staggers
17 February 2023

A short history of bollocks

By swearing on BBC Breakfast, Ben Wallace revealed himself to be a true Brit.

By Peter Williams

On 15 February, BBC Breakfast’s Nina Warhurst asked the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace to respond to reports querying the strength of Britain’s armed forces, including one suggesting that Germany would retain command of Nato’s rapid reaction force because UK forces are “not capable of taking control”. To which he replied: “The first one, the story in Germany, is just bollocks, right?… Nato leadership did not approach anybody. We are taking over [the force] as scheduled.”

His irritation was doubtless genuine, and Wallace has form for strong language. In 2021, during the Allied withdrawal from Afghanistan, he used the same word on LBC while discussing the saga of Pen Farthing and his animals. But it was also both a clever use of an expletive – scattering the innuendo, rumour and anonymously sourced reporting that supported the question with a kind of linguistic howitzer – and a clever choice of word.

This is because, first, even if you have decided to make the British people splutter into their cornflakes or dash to cover the ears of adjacent children, it’s still best to use a profanity generally considered to be at the milder end of the scale. Second, at a time when the armed forces are desperate for extra Whitehall funding they may not get, using a bit of weapons-grade language to stand up for them might help a defence minister burnish his credentials in the mess tent. (And yes, “credentials” must always be “burnished”.) Third, depicting yourself to the non-offended voter as a rare politician who speaks like a human, with real spontaneous feeling, perhaps even the mythic politician they would like to have a drink with, is no bad thing.

Further to that, the offending word is a proper piece of Anglo-Saxon, derived from the Old English bealluc, whose use is largely native to these islands: a patriot’s swearword that, despite never venturing far from its anatomical meaning, we have used in a remarkable variety of ways.

Its usage as Wallace meant it, as a synonym for “nonsense” or “rubbish”, is thought to date from around the 17th century, when it was used as slang for clergymen who sermonised windily and nonsensically. To drop a single bealluc or make a beallucs of something is to make an error, but find the equivalent of a complete pair on a dog and, congratulations, you have found the ideal or best version of something. As a gerund it describes a stiff, adult telling-off. Switch it to the simple past tense and you have a term for drunkenness to go alongside smashed, hammered or plastered. In Ireland you might make the plural noun serve as a singular, as in “you little…”.  And if you are completely fed up with a task or state of affairs, you might say what the Liberal Democrats said to Brexit in 2019.

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At the New Statesman, we usually prefer writers not to swear and try to keep profanity to a minimum (something I find myself doing even in an article about swearing). On the production desk we often discuss which words should be spelled out, starred out and omitted – knowing, of course, that starring out is a nonsense (unless a reader has spent years training their mind to associate a particular sound with a sequence of asterisks – perhaps the white noise they use in courtrooms or a bleep). And yet such half-measures do help maintain the civility needed for strident, respectful discourse and to preserve decorum, however flimsily.

They also do profanity itself a service by ensuring these illicit words retain their power – meaning they can be reserved for use at the right time and for maximum effect. Just, perhaps, as Ben Wallace did.

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon

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