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Bonce

Q From Martin Nickolls: I grew up with the word bonce meaning head. As far as I recall, it was common to my friends as well as my family, and yet I can now find no trace of it. Any idea if it is a word and if so, what are its origins?

A I’m guessing you were brought up in the UK, because bonce as a slang term for the head is hardly known elsewhere. It was certainly common in my youth, about half a century ago, though it sounds rather old-fashioned these days. If you know the songs of Flanders and Swann, you will recall the one about the Rhinoceros:

Oh the bodger on the bonce!
The bodger on the bonce!
Pity the poor old Rhino with
The bodger on the bonce!

where the bodger is his horn.

The original bonce was a large marble that featured in several children’s games of the nineteenth century. The English Dialect Dictionary suggests it’s a version of bounce, since such a marble was also called a bouncer and was “the large earthenware marble used for bouncing or playing with checks or cubes”. From information supplied by subscribers, and from Iona and Peter Opie’s book called Children’s Games with Things, it’s clear that this game was a form of jacks or fivestones that has indeed been called checks, especially in Yorkshire; it was played with four or five earthenware cubes and “a large earthenware marble, almost the size of a golf ball”. This was the bonce. The Opies don’t say that the game was ever called cubes, but it isn’t hard to see how it could have got that name.

To judge from a comment in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of 1851, such marbles were also made of other materials: “We did as we liked with mother, she was so precious easy, and I never learned anything but playing buttons and making leaden ‘bonces,’ that’s all.”

The shift to a slang term for the head seems to have happened around the 1880s.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 5 Jun. 2004

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 5 June 2004.