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While putting the finishing touches to my ‘Moss Reid’ mystery Black Marigolds I was determined to pin down the spelling of bollox / bollix / bollocks once and for all.

The word crops up in various permutations in everyday Hiberno-English, and quite a lot in my books. And the various spellings have subtle differences.

First stop: the Urban Dictionary. It starts by describing “bollocks” as…

a highly flexible term commonly used by the English.

So it’s a term, it’s commonly used, and used by the English, and it has origins. Yeah right. That definition is itself a load of bollocks.

I suspect the term is even more flexible when used by the Irish, in Hiberno-English, in the kind of language you’ll find in, say, contemporary Irish crime fiction.

Admittedly, the Irish do tend to swear a lot. Some swearwords are used as punctuation, some are expletives that explode like grenades, others get transformed into a softened cosiness while still retaining a slight whiff of wickedness. In fact the everyday speech in my local pub tonight would be peppered with lots of little bollixes like there’s no tomorrow.

So the “bollocks” term has multiple uses and multiple spellings. Perhaps these spellings convey subtle distinctions that even the speaker or writer isn’t necessarily fully aware of.

Yes, bollocks (or ballocks) is never quite the same thing as bollix, bollox or bollicks – just as “fuck” and “feck” (or indeed their much uglier cousin “frig”) aren’t interchangeable either. To complicate things further, the one and the same word can be bollocks (adjective) or bollocks (noun) or sometimes even a verb.

But where do we start? With its use as a swearword? Yeah, feckit, why not.

Oh bollocks!!

.

Listen carefully to Father Ted and guess the spelling. There’s a definite “ocks” or possibly “ox” at the end of it, right? It’s not a “bollix”.

Or maybe we should start with the word as a strictly anatomical term. (Hence “a kick in the bollocks” – a literal or metaphorical misfortune.)

Or how the same bollocks word could refer to a truly excellent thing (“the bollocks” being similar here to the pyjamas of cats or the knees of bees)…

“Mel Healy’s latest book is the dog’s bollocks.”

That particular one – “the dog’s bollocks” – was possibly originally a printing term, from when they would put a dash after a colon to introduce a list. The resulting shape :- is a bit anatomical too, apparently.

Dog’s Bollocks Syndrome (DBS): design term for websites that have tons of flashy but unnecessary features (from the old joke ‘Why does a dog lick its bollocks? Because it can’).

Yet the same word can mean the very opposite – crap, rubbish, bullshit…

“Merciful hour. That film was bollocks.”
“That was a bollocky bockety old bike ye lent me.”
“That Enda Kenny gobshite is still talking a load of bollocks.”

Hence the insertion of a definite article can change the meaning entirely and definitively…

“That is just… bollocks.”
Which is very different to
“That is just the bollocks” (as in the dog’s bollocks)

Acting the bollix

Or “bollocks” could refer to a complete lie, or act as a negation…

“He says he was U2’s singer before Bono? That’s complete bollocks!”
Or “Yeah? Was he bollocks!” (i.e. he wasn’t).
Or “He’s just acting the bollix” (as if we have a large thespian community in Ireland, and this Bollix chap is their most popular character, far more so than another theatrical chap called Bollocky Bill).
Or “Bollocks to that.”

Never mind the bollocks - revamped for the "Keep Calm" generationIt’s hard to imagine, but over a third of a century ago when the Sex Pistols called their LP “Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols” some bollockses took them to court on an obscenity charge. For that seven-letter word on the album cover.

The barrister for the defence, one John Mortimer (who specialised in obscenity trials and was the author of the brilliant Rumpole series of novels and TV shows) produced expert witnesses to tell My Learned Friends that the word “bollocks” was not in fact obscene but was Ye Olde English term for a priest, and which, in the context of the album’s title, simply meant “nonsense”. Nice one Rumpole, bollocky old case dismissed.

Bolloxed and banjaxed

Besides “nonsense” or “twaddle” (though I doubt John Lydon would have gone for “Never Mind the Twaddle, Here’s the…”), bolloxed might simply mean something that is broken, banjaxed, beyond repair. Perhaps it’s spelt with an “x” here to mirror the “x” in “banjaxed”…

“Me iPhone is bollixed.”

Variations of bollocks can refer to giving or receiving a severe reprimand…

“He gave me a right bollocking for being late to work again this morning.”

Or extreme, strenuous or excessive situations…

“I worked me bollocks off but still got sacked (I guess it didn’t help when I turned up bollickin’ drunk though).”
“Hurry up, I’m freezin’ me bollocks out here.”

Or a state of undress…

“And I’m bollock naked too.”

Or one of exhaustion…

“I’m bolloxed, knackered, shagged and f***ed. Too many asterisks last night.”

Or inebriation…

“We went to Coppers last night and got completely bollixed.”

Or messing something up or making a huge mistake…

“You got sacked because you made a right bollocks of it ya mad eejit.
“The bankers really bollocksed up (NB verb) the country, didn’t they?”

Or someone who’sa complete rogue, toerag or windbag…

“He was a right bollix.”

Or the complete opposite, because many an insult can also act as a greeting or term of endearment in Hiberno-English…

“How’s it goin’, you old bollix.”

Or simply a miscreant child…

“Come here to me ya little bollix or ye’ll get a box round the ears.”

‘Bosco is a Bollox! Bosco is a Bollox!’
– Zig and Zag, caught shouting and tossing the Bosco puppet around (with Ian Dempsey chortling in the background) after the cameras returned prematurely from a commercial break during Dempsey’s Den.

The Guardian Style Guide

But back to the original problem: how to spell it? What are the essential differences between a bollocks and a bollix?

Twitter has the answer to everything nowdays, so on Twitter I decided to refer this thorny problem to the ultimate gurus on such matters – the Guardian Style Guide people. These bollixes dole out free advice, despite me only buying the Saturday edition.

Still, I figured they owed me one because there’s always one section missing in my local newsagents (and why is it always far more likely to be the cooking one or the little tiny magaziney thing rather than “Family” or “Travel”?)

Anyway. My query was brief, yet phrased with enough salty innuendo of a smutty seaside postcard variety that the English seem to like – along the lines of “Where do you stand on ‘bollox’?” (which is a bit like asking “where do you stand on feet?” or “where do you sit on your arse?”) – and I sat back and waited for the style guardians to make a decree…

I suspect the Guardian might be slightly off the ball on this one. You see, in Hiberno-English, “bollix” (or “bollicks” or “bollox – or “bealluc”s FFS) isn’t just a simple alternative to “bollocks”. It’s not a direct substitute or synonym or interchangeable.

In the environs of Dublin, a person may indeed be a bollocks but is not necessarily a right old bollix. Something happens when “ocks” becomes “ix” in Hiberno-English. The “ee” sound of the “ix” or “icks” ending tends to make things more familiar, more diminutive, less harsh in their intensity, softening the contempt being piled upon the recipient (even if he or she is talking bollocks). Perhaps it has a hint of the diminutive ending “-een” in English (girleen, colleen, boreen, smithereens, Jackeen), which comes from “-ín” in Irish.

Larry Gogan to a caller who got none of 18 questions right on the Just a Minute radio quiz: ‘Ah sure the questions didn’t really suit you did they?’
Caller: ‘Ah go feck off Larry you’re only an old bollix.’

The word count

Finally, for the record, here are the frequencies of the various bollicky words in my novel Black Marigolds:

Word

Frequency

Bollocks 7
Bollix 5
Bollixes 1
Bollock (as in “stark bollock naked”) 1
Bollocking 1
Bolloxology 1

So. Looks like the bollocks(es) won, with bollix close behind.

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