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Your Humble Blogger enjoyed the audio (with accompanying still photos) of Lynn Redgrave as the titular Grace provided by the New York Times. I was about to write the lovely and marvelous Lynn Redgrave, so as to distinguish her, I suppose, from some other Lynn Redgrave of your acquaintance, but in fact she is substantially less lovely than she was, and substantially more wonderful, perhaps in proportion. A remarkable woman, and a remarkable actress. Anyway.

In the bit excerpted on the Times site, her character is lecturing to a class about William Paley’s Watchmaker analogy, which, she assures the class, is absolute bollocks. Well, and perhaps it is. But it occurred to me, and not for the first time, to wonder why it is that testicles are equated with falsehoods. I know, I know, it isn’t falsehood as such, but a sort of muddle-headedness, misrepresentation and mistake, not altogether unlike bullshit.

In American English, balls are pretty much only associated with courage. This is perfectly understandable, as courage connects to manliness in some sense, and manliness to testicles. In addition, there’s the whole actual biological testosterone thingie, for whatever that’s worth. Castration, emasculation, feminization. It’s understandable, if not, you know, a particularly good model of the world as it is. Still. Balls are courage.

In British English, however, balls can indicate a mess of almost any kind. What we call a screw-up they are more likely to call a balls-up (or a cock-up, which I understand to be, oddly, from the Yiddish, where cock is shit, and alte cocker, or old shitter was a common phrase of great pungency). One can, in England, make an utter balls of it, balls it up, make it an utter balls-up. It can even be ballsed-up, which is absolutely frightful, whatever it is. This is, by the way, different from balling up a piece of paper, which (by coincidence, I assume) is also screwing up a piece of paper, which is different from screwing up. Fucking up a piece of paper is not the same, either, and although one can fuck it up, and it can be fucked up, a person can be fucked up on either side of the Atlantic (a friend recently referred to the possibility of Larkining up her children, which was too good not to be passed along, although it was not the impetus for this note, which is, if you remember, about bollocks).

Balls can also, in British English, be a general all-purpose curse word. Oh, balls, you can say, the tea’s gone cold. As with a lot of British English terms, it can also be used in American English to increase the pretentiousness quotient. Am I pretentious? you can say, Am I balls! and I think that should satisfy everyone.

My understanding of the English attitude toward profanity is that it is generally far more loose in terms of the connection between the word and the circumstance; as I think I’ve said, an American can fall into water that is damned cold, damn’ cold, fucking cold, or cold as hell, but an Englishman can fall into water that is arsing cold, cunting cold or even bastard cold. I connect this with a difference I once read in an analysis of English versus American limericks; the American style tends to have some sort of twist or pun along with the filth, whilst the English will award points for the pure filthiness of it.

But my point, if I had one, and somewhere in the dim recesses of my memory I suspect I did, and do you know with all the databases available to hand, I still can’t find where the dim recesses of memory originates as a phrase? It’s clear that recesses are frequently dim in the late nineteenth century, but those I found are either actual recesses, as cellars, forests and storerooms, or geographical recesses, as backwaters and sub-urbs. By the early twentieth century, though, dim recesses of memory is already a completed and contained phrase.

Wait, that wasn’t my point. My point was that for some reason balls or ballocks or bollocks (or even bollox) indicates incorrect information, usually through incompetence rather than deliberate deception (although one can feed someone a load of bollocks, I suppose, all the same as a line of bullshit). But why? Is there some connection there that I’m missing? Other than just the random choice of something profane?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


When you wrote this, were you pissed?

Anyway, I'm not sure about connections, but have you ever noticed that bad information gives off an odor?

A propos of nothing, balls!


"No one can be as calculatedly rude as the British, which amazes Americans, who do not understand studied insult and can only offer abuse as a substitute."

- Paul Gallico

No, I wasn't pissed in either sense whilst writing the note, although I wasn't entirely well, either.

I think that the idea of insult is interesting. I agree with the quote that the word doesn't seem to mean quite the same in British and American English, but I don't know that I can put my finger on how. I suspect it's about class (isn't everything?), and the sense that when and Englishman insults another Englishman's intelligence, chastity or moral probity, he is accusing him of failing to live up to his class. But I think there's more to it, or possibly less.


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