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Q From Mark Raymond, Australia: In a weak moment at work yesterday, I used the word embuggerance in formal writing. To my amazement, not an eyebrow has lifted (yet). The word is one of many words and phrases used around here, in the Australian Department of Defence, which seem to come from military slang. Others I can recall off the cuff are a poofteenth of stuff-all (for a negligible proportion), and oh-dark-hundred (for a very early hour). I wonder how far abroad this word exists, and how deeply it is (or isn’t) embedded in the language.

A Love your other examples. Embuggerance, it would be fair to remark, has had very little impact on the linguistic world at large. You’re right to assert that it’s military slang, especially in the phrase embuggerance factor. It hasn’t moved much outside that area, no doubt because it’s considered to be rather too rude for general consumption, since it is obviously derived from the mainly British and Antipodean vulgar slang noun and verb bugger for anal intercourse.

Eric Partridge, a noted recorder of military slang, included embuggerance factor in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English and defined it as “a natural or artificial hazard that complicates any proposed course of action”. (Embuggerance itself may be defined in closely similar terms.) He says it was British Army slang, dating from about 1950, which feels about right.

It’s clearly a development of an older British transitive verb to bugger about, to cause someone trouble and irritation. This appears, for example, in exclamations such as “stop buggering me about!” An embuggerance, then, is an instance of trouble or interference so caused.

It does seem that it has been taken up especially enthusiastically in Australia, since of all the reference works I have here, only the Macquarie Dictionary includes it. I’ve been told by researchers at the Oxford English Dictionary that it has recently appeared in Inside the British Army by Antony Beevor and also in Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero, about the SAS, hardly surprising places to encounter it.

It made a rare appearance outside a military context in the Guardian newspaper earlier in 2001, in an interview with Louis de Bernières: “In fact, he has had to put up with so much ‘brainless and trivial embuggerance’ he says, that he has come to regret having written Corelli in the first place”. However, in view of the World War Two setting of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, even that is hardly outside the services ambit (de Bernières once spent what he calls “four disastrous months” in the British Army; whether he picked up the word there is unknown, but it seems likely).

Definitely a term to be used sparingly, and with careful selection of audience.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 17 Nov. 2001

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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: 17 November 2001.