I was watching an episode of the comedy science-fiction television show Red Dwarf the other evening, when Arnold J Rimmer suddenly grasped his genital area and shouted “Oh! Me nadgers!”. By coincidence, I had a couple of days before been listening to some old tapes of The Goon Show and Round the Horne, two classic BBC radio serials, in both of which the word nadgers appeared.
You will understand that this term is not in my working vocabulary, but the coincidence led me to delve into its antecedents. The first thing I discovered is that the word isn’t in any of my dictionaries, nor — more surprisingly — is it listed in the majority of my slang dictionaries, not even several recent ones.
And yet today in Britain it’s not that unusual a term, turning up in a variety of situations. Take Terry Pratchett’s book Maskerade: “It was like hermits. There was no point freezing your nadgers off on top of some mountain while communing with the Infinite unless you could rely on a lot of impressionably young women to come along occasionally and say ‘Gosh’ ”; or his Interesting Times: “If anyone starts laughing, stab ’em one ... That’s right! Right in the nadgers!”. It also appeared in the BBC television series Bottom, written by Adrian Edmondson and Rik Mayall: “Right, let’s go! Oh, nadgers! — what kind do you want?”. And a search of the World Wide Web turns up a few more uses, including this one from a recent newsletter of the Coventry City Football Club: “With the club a record £9 million in debt, Big Fat Ron was up to his nadgers in the transfer market last week”.
If you detect a certain laddish link between these citations, it is no accident. In Britain today, the word seems to be used mostly by young men as a alternative to such well-worn expressions as bollocks or balls and in very similar contexts. That is, nadgers can be used literally to refer to the testicles, as in the Red Dwarf quote, or as an all-purpose rude expletive.
The earliest recorded uses are in the two BBC comedy shows I mentioned. In both, they appear on the face of it to be mere nonsense words. For example, in Round the Horne it was frequently employed by Rambling Sid Rumpo, played by Kenneth Williams, who each week creatively reinterpreted a traditional song using made-up words which were as sexually suggestive as possible within the moderately strait-laced policy of the time (incidentally, the character’s name, derived from rump in the sense of “arse” and which already had sexual undertones, went into the language as a euphemism for sexual activity, and has led to variant forms such as rumpy-pumpy). Here is a typical Rumpo song, from the show first broadcast on 22 May 1967:
What shall we do with the drunken nurker,
What shall we do with the drunken nurker,
What shall we do with the drunken nurker,
He’s bending his cordwangle.
Hit him in the nadgers with the bosun’s plunger,
Slap him on the grummitt with a wrought iron lunger,
Cuff him in the moolies with the Captain’s grunger —
Till his bodgers dangle.
There’s probably material here for an article about the linguistic associations that makes each of these words sound so crude (moolies, for example, is an obvious modification of goolies, yet another term for the testicles derived from the Hindi goli, “bullet; ball”, which was brought back to Britain by soldiers in the Indian army). There are many other examples of the use of nadgers from the shows, such as the song to the tune of Foggy Foggy Dew which Rambling Sid began “When I was a young man / I nadgered my snod / as I nurked at the wogglers trade”.
A decade earlier, the Goon Show had employed the word in a similarly inventive but apparently nonsense mode. The title of this article is taken from a speech of the French arch villain Moriarty in a show called The Flea of 20 December 1956. It also appears in many other places, including the recitative introduction to one of their songs, Eeh! Ah! Oh! Ooh!:
Doctors strongly recommend it as a cure for the lurgi, the onset of the nadgers, spots before the ankles, soft shoulders, pink toenails and acute [something unintelligible] of the legs.
Indeed, the assumption of some lexicographers is that both shows were employing the word as a nonsense catchphrase; for example, Paul Beale, the editor of the eighth edition of Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, is of this opinion about the Goons. It is tempting to go along with this, but I have my suspicions that it may not be the whole story. It is slightly surprising that Round the Horne should pick up this one word from the Goon Show — but not so far as I can tell any other — unless both were drawing on a common source.
The Goons — rather more than Round the Horne — were working within a strict BBC censorship policy designed to eliminate what the producers’ guide of the time referred to as “crudities” or “doubtful material”:
There is an absolute ban upon the following: jokes about lavatories, effeminacy in men, immorality of any kind, suggestive references to honeymooning couples, chambermaids, fig leaves, ladies’ underwear (eg. winter draws on), animal habits (eg. rabbits), lodgers, commercial travellers ...
It was their delight to get forbidden phrases past their often comparatively unworldly producers. For example, the Goons invented a character William Cobbler, whose surname is rhyming slang (in full cobbler’s awls, “balls”; it is also the source of the popular London interjection cobblers!). Another was Hugh Jampton, that is, “huge hampton”, in which the second word is also rhyming slang: “Hampton Wick” (a London placename), meaning “prick” (from it comes the common London idiom “he gets on my wick”, meaning “he annoys me intensely”). So if nadgers was a relatively recent coarse slang term with a limited circulation, it would please them enormously to hear it said on staid old auntie BBC.
One possibility for the term’s origin is that it is a modification of nackers or knackers, itself an altered form of knockers, which is, as Partridge says, a low and dialect 19th and 20th century term for the testicles (the word could conceivably be related to the trade of knacker, a person who bought worn-out or diseased animals for slaughter, hence knacker’s yard as a expression for the ultimate resting place of anything worn out, or “I’m knackered” meaning “exhausted” and which ultimately comes from the same source as the reduplicated knick-knack for any small item). This alteration may have been influenced by gonad; the word nad on its own has been recorded in US slang for “testicles” since at least the 1980s, and it has now reached teenagers’ slang in Britain, though much too late, of course, to affect the earliest recorded uses. Another word that sounds almost the same, tadger, has been used to mean “penis” since the 1950s or even earlier, though the variant form todger now seems more common.
Eric Partridge first includes the word in the 1970 edition of his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, which lists the phrase “put the nadgers on” as meaning “to exercise ... an evil influence on equipment”, much like the similar phrases “to put the ’fluence on” or “put the mockers on” something. Partridge suggests it comes from RAF slang of the Second World War, mentioning that it has been used by personnel stationed in Malta since the 1940s, but he is only able to give a 1960 date for a correspondent’s first-hand evidence. However, as the Goon Show was heavily influenced by wartime military slang, it is a plausible source.
Yet another possibility is that it is a dialect expression which gained a wider currency through the mixing of men from widely differing educational and geographical backgrounds during that war. The English Dialect Dictionary gives it as a Devon term with two separate senses, either “The boys’ game of notching pocket knives by striking their edges together at right angles”, or “An expression used when a coin, in tossing, falls upon its edge, neither head nor tail up” (didn’t you always feel a need for a word to describe this eventuality?); neither seems a likely source. The word is also glossed in the Oxford Concise Ulster Dictionary as “a lad, a young boy; a small, pert young person; a bad-tempered person”, from which it is a large, but not inconceivable, leap to its current meaning, though there is no evidence for this.
All of which is, I suppose, no more than a long-winded way of saying that nobody knows for sure.