Academic journal article Folklore

Much Ado about "Sweet Bugger All": Getting to the Bottom of a Puzzle in British Folk Speech. (Research Article)

Academic journal article Folklore

Much Ado about "Sweet Bugger All": Getting to the Bottom of a Puzzle in British Folk Speech. (Research Article)

Article excerpt


One of the lexical items differentiating British English from American English is the word "bugger." Popular in England as attested by numerous idioms and its frequent occurrence in limericks, it is rarely used in the United States and if it is, it is without reference to its original sense of sodomy. It is suggested that this marked contrast in usage may possibly be related to different attitudes towards homosexuality existing in England and the United States.


There is a well-known quotation enjoying near proverbial status claiming that "England and America are two nations (countries) divided by a common language." According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, this bit of oxymoronic wisdom is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw (Partington 1992, 638) despite the fact that it does not seem to appear in the playwright's published writings. It is not listed, for example, in Bryan and Mieder's comprehensive The Proverbial Bernard Shaw: An Index to Proverbs in the Works of George Bernard Shaw (1994).

On a purely lexical level, it is easy enough to demonstrate the "divide" and there have been quite a number of semi-popular books containing lists of many of the distinctive vocabulary differences (de Funiak 1967; Bickerton 1973; Moss 1978; Schur 1987; Walmsley 1987; Davies 1997). I am not speaking of variations in spelling, for example, American "flavor" versus British "flavour," nor am I concerned with differences in pronunciation, for example, of the word "tomato" (Americans pronounce the second vowel like the one in "may" while the English pronounce the second vowel like the one in the abbreviated form of "mamma," that is, "ma") but of actual clear-cut lexical distinctions. Examples would include the following:

British English    American English 
Biscuit (sweet)    Cookie 
Braces             Suspenders 
Bum                Butt(ocks) 
Chemist            Druggist 
Crisps             Potato chips 
Dustbin            Garbage can 
Estate agent       Realtor 
Flat               Apartment 
Fortnight          Two weeks 
Lift               Elevator 
Lorry              Truck 
Nappy              Diaper 
Pram               Baby carriage 

An example of the sort of sexual terminology that is the subject of this article would be wank off (British) and jerk off (American).

This brief list is meant only to give a few representative examples of definite differences between British and American English (cf. Zviadadze 1983 and Davies 1997). These lexical pairs tend to be in complementary distribution. No American would feel comfortable referring to a lorry carrying a load of crisps. Nor would s/he be likely to refer to a "jerk" as a "wanker" even though both terms derive similarly from slang idioms for masturbation. And few Americans are even aware of the large number of British slang expressions involving the term "bugger."

Bugger and Buggery

Bugger in its original and literal sense refers to an act of sodomy; that is, an act of anal penetration. Bugger as a noun signifies the active agent in such an act while bugger as a verb refers to the act itself. Legman (1975, 75) offers several folk definitions of buggery: Queen Victoria asks her chamberlain, "What is a bugger?" "A bugger, Your Majesty," replies the courtier imperturbably, "is a man who does another man an injury behind his back." This text comes from England c. 1927. In a variant, it is a butler who replies, "A bugger is an individual who enlarges the circle of his acquaintances." Another folk definition of buggery cited by Legman is: "Buggery: The right man in the wrong place," which he points out is undoubtedly intended as a spin-off of the folk definition of adultery as "The wrong man in the right place" (Legman 1968, 791).

Buggery in Limericks

The popularity of buggery as a folk theme is nowhere more evident than in limericks. …

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