Sunday 2 December 2012

Slang Terms for Body Parts

Recently author Jim Murdoch suggested it might be interesting to look at slang terms for body parts. Thanks for the suggestion, Jim. It has resulted in the following.

Initially I intended to provide an alphabetical list but soon discovered there are many more terms than I ever thought possible. Hence I opted for taking each body part and looking at the slang terms for each. It also seems logical to start with the top and work down and thus let’s start with the head.

Head has several slang terms used in English, some will be not only known and used. Noggin first came into common use around the beginning of the nineteenth century. Origins are disputed, some maintaining it is perfectly acceptable, if little used, English word. If this is so it would then share the same origin as Irish naigin and Scottish Gaelic noigean rather than be derived from same.

Loaf is much easier, it is simply the abbreviation for ‘loaf of bread’ and rhyming slang for ‘head’.

Nut is also fairly easy to see as likening the hard skull to the hard exterior of a nut, the head being the only reasonably sized part of the body to do so.

Noodle was an English synonym for a simpleton by the middle of the eighteenth century and predictably went on to become a slang term for the head.

Bonce, my particular favourite, can also be bonse and is first seen in the latter part of the nineteenth century when it was used to describe two very different things. It is easy to see how a large marble called a bonce will have soon been used to refer to the head. Similarly the bonce was also a term used by schoolboys to refer to the headmaster, again a short step to refer to the human head. It is difficult to know which came first as both appeared in writing at more or less the same time.

On the head we have a face incorporating the ears and eyes. Taking these in order the ears, seemingly forever objects of ridicule, are known as the lug or more often said as lughole. The lug is not true slang for it has been used in Scotland since at least the sixteenth century, the etymology remains obscure. Eyes are easier, either speaking of peepers, clearly derived from ‘peeping’, or mince pies, rhyming slang for eyes.

Noses are also found on the head and, with the exception of (as Monty Python described them) ‘the naughty bits’, the one part of the body which seems to have attracted more slang terms than any other. Some are easy to see as alluding to this body part resembling those located in a similar position on other animals. Examples of which include beak, snout, proboscis and trunk.

Conk probably shares its origin with ‘conch’, for it was originally used solely to refer to a particularly fleshy nose which resembled the shell.

Hooter can only describe the sound made when certain individuals blow their nose as if it’s a musical instrument, albeit often a badly tuned one.

Legs are also known as ‘pins’, for obvious reasons. Indeed the only slang term which wasn’t self-explanatory was ‘gam’ which we see as an American term. It must have come from gamb for this is the heraldic description for a leg.

Feet are known as ‘tootsies’, a variation on ‘toddle’ as in ‘walk’. The term ‘plates’ is short for ‘plates of meat’ and thus rhyming slang.

Then of course we come to those aforementioned ‘naughty bits’ (I stick with Python’s terminology as ‘private parts’ irritates me as I consider ALL my parts to be private). Predictably there are more names for these parts than everywhere else combined and I’m sure others are created very regularly. I consulted the Dictionary of Historical Slang and, merely flicking through the pages, it soon became evident there was a least one male and one female term on almost every one of its thousand plus pages.

In the light of the sheer numbers involved, and so as not to appear overly explicit, vulgar, demeaning, or politically incorrect I decided to omit any references to the male wedding tackle or the female equivalent (save for those) while all breasts will also be left out, be they male or female (and no mention of ‘moobs’ as I find this most offensive, they are ‘measts’ if you please).

However irrespective of gender we all have one ‘naughty bit’ in common and as the subject of bottoms will always illicit a laugh, I decided to end (pun intended) with slang terms for the rear. This is nowhere near a comprehensive list, I have chosen a few samples but doubtless will return to the subject if I ever find myself at a loss for something to post.

Bum is, after the original Saxon arse, the most common term. It predates ‘bottom’ and is thought to have originated as ‘imitating the sound of an explosion’ – hence the bum was named from the fart which is roughly equal to Ford naming their new model the Carbon Monoxide. Incidentally the use of ‘bottom’ from the eighteenth century led to ‘bum’ being considered vulgar.

Fundament was in use by the thirteenth century, literally referring to the ‘foundation’ and an early forerunner of such easily recognized terms such as ‘sit upon’, ‘seat’, ‘backside’, ‘behind’, ‘posterior’ and even ‘derriere’.

Prat is in general use as a synonym for ‘foolish’ but began as slang for the good old bottom and is first seen in writing in 1610 with the line “And tip lower with thy prat”. The origin is unknown although I’m sure that prat has fallen out of favour is undoubtedly appreciated by those named Rear of the Year.

Two centuries later it became known as ‘the ultimatum’, easy to see as from the Latin meaning ‘the farthest point’. Incidentally Latin is also used for the anatomical name, the buttocks being ‘nates’ and, if you are unfortunate enough to only have one, the singular ‘natis’.

I have missed many expressions out because they are largely Americanisms and have only caught on in the UK owing to the vast number of broadcasting hours devoted to US imports. However usage of ‘fanny’ in the US to refer to the posterior is hardly likely to catch on to the west of the Atlantic owing to its use to describe another body part. It is used in the States as a diminutive for ‘Frances’, just why this nickname developed is a mystery although there are numerous (highly questionable) suggestions. I include this term here for its use in the Provence region of France. Here the game of petanque is played and when a player is beaten 13-0, the worst possible score, the phrase “Il est fanny” (he is fanny) is heard and the loser is expected to pay the standard forfeit. This involves kissing a woman by the name of Fanny on the bottom. Presumably there is a dearth of women of this name or, perhaps more likely, they are sick and tired of crap petanque players trying to kiss their derriere. Either way the French always bring to the game an image of a mademoiselle baring her posterior, which could be in the form of a picture, a carving, or piece of pottery. This certainly explains why petanque has never caught on in the UK.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.


  1. Glad to see you rise to the challenge here. Many years ago I bought a dictionary of euphemisms and there was a large section dealing with body parts which is where I got the idea from. The euphemisms for private parts can be interesting. My father, for example, referred to his privates as his ‘old man’—I’ve never known anyone else use that one—and as my last wife’s daughter, when she first saw her baby brother getting his nappy changed, said, “Oh, he’s got a pompom on his bottom” so, from then on, in our house male genitals were referred to as a ‘pommie’. Idiolectal expressions like that really fascinate me. There’s another subject for you to investigate if the mood takes you: idioglossia.

  2. Thanks Jim,

    I am unable to resist a challenge although such personal expressions do seem a little too personal for an etymological discussion.

    However I have heard of your father's expression before, or at least something similar. A relative (who shall remain nameless) referred to such as TOM, an acronym for The Old Man, even though it wasn't hers to name!

    Perhaps I should ask for personal examples and stories of how they came about? Must be a book there!