Q From Sid Crawford, UK: I hope you can help me discover where the word bloke comes from. We all know it but does anyone know anything about it?
A This slang term for a male person is originally British. It’s still current and very common, though it can be intended as mildly deprecatory or as a jokey reference:
Male earrings, I heard many years ago from a bloke in a pub who heard it from another bloke who got it off a third bloke, used to be worn by sailors as a convenient way to pay for a decent burial if they died at sea.
The Times, 18 Jan. 2011.
It’s known from the early nineteenth century, often as bloak. To start with, it was a slang term of criminals. The earliest example I know about is in a virtually illiterate letter read in evidence at the Old Bailey on 9 April 1829 at the trial of John Daly, aged 17, for housebreaking; it appears once as blake and once as bloke. (Daly was found guilty and sentenced to death.)
Writers can be blokes, too
In 1839, H Brandon included it in a glossary in his survey Poverty, Mendacity, and Crime and defined it as a gentleman. That surely overstated the matter, although in its early days in Australia it was used for the boss or for some person of superior status, a sense that isn’t totally extinct. That also ties in with the one-time lower-deck slang sense in the Royal Navy for the commander of a ship.
However, the usual colloquial sense was of a male person of no particular status or sort. From the early 1850s, it appears in the works of several writers about low life in London, including Henry Mayhew and George Augustus Sala, where it’s clearly a slang term for a man of any class. It’s still used in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in the same way.
Americans often think of it as British slang, but it was known in the US during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the sense of a stupid or worthless person and also for somebody with criminal associations:
Old Bill had been fencing with an old bloak in [New] York. [Constable] Hays went instantly to the old bloak’s place and recovered a large amount of stolen property.
Philadelphia Press, 30 Dec. 1869. Quoted in Volume 3 of the Century Dictionary, 1895.
The experts aren’t altogether sure where it came from. Some writers, especially in the United States, have suggested that it originated in the Celtic word ploc for a large, bull-headed person. Others have argued that the stupid person sense may be from the Dutch blok, a fool, which is where we get blockhead from. That derivation is probably correct, but we’re now fairly sure that the first British use of bloke in the broader sense of a man derives either from Romany, the language of the Rom or gypsies, or more probably from Shelta, a secret language used by Irish and Welsh tinkers and some Gypsies. It may ultimately derive from Hindi loke, a man.