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In the spirit of this question, "How profane is it to call someone a 'slag' in British English", how insulting is "wanker" in British English on the spectrum of profanities and vulgarities? What's the typical usage if you wanted to insult someone?

(I probably ask because as a word it's quite amusing to me. I don't think it would be unfair to say that in American English, the word isn't very insulting at all; mostly, it would light joshing to me. But frequently in the British movies I watch, cunt, a very verboten word in AmE, is used as almost a playful opener in the repartee of insults, and things only really escalate into trouble when someone calls the other "wanker!" in an exaggerated style. So I'm supposing it must be quite a bit more serious over the pond. On the other hand, they are just movies.)

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I followed the question english.stackexchange.com/questions/20563 concerning cockney-english and watched the linked video. Accidently, the very last comment on a nice taxidriver was a nice example of the use of just... "wanker!" ;-) –  Gottfried Helms Apr 11 '11 at 20:41
    
@Gottfried Helms Well, if you watch the entire clip, you'll see that the taxidriver is just a wee bit racist...his last word to the old men after dropping them off is "watch out for the darkies." and it's his shtick in the movies to rail on about immigrants the entire time. He's not exactly an angel ;-) –  Uticensis Apr 11 '11 at 21:00
    
whew... Good I didn't understood much of the conversation; just listened to the strange sound of the cockney which is nearly uncomprehensible for me - and only heard this word clearly spoken just after reading the question here... –  Gottfried Helms Apr 11 '11 at 21:09
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5 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

It's probably worth prefixing all this with the caveat that, as discovered from the discussion on your previous question, this does vary quite a bit between from place to place (and possibly between classes, professions, sexes etc...), so do beware that what answers you get may well not apply to the whole of the UK :)

I'm not sure which films you've been watching, but the reaction you've observed may have more to do with the tone the words are used with: if you walk into a pub and call someone you don't know a cunt, you can be fairly certain of a fight. If you instead call them a wanker, your chances of getting away without a fight are better, but only slightly so. With either word, anyone being referred to with it is likely to get very angry.

That said, just saying the word wanker is much less shocking than saying cunt: in the place I work (which is admittedly rather tolerant of so-called "bad language"), people might often use the word to express their frustration with someone (though never anyone working there) — say, a persistent and rude telemarketer who won't leave them alone, or a particularly unhelpful customer service rep from the phone company. Or perhaps someone who cut them up on their drive to work. Use of the "c-word" is much more rare (that would be reserved for someone who had, say, driven into their car and written it off...). And it is telling that there is no corresponding expression "the w-word". (Well actually there are many possibilities — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — but none of them refer to "wanker"!)

Of course the dynamics of insults are very different between close friends, where much stronger language can be used, and indeed being incredibly rude can often be a mark of affection. Tone is everything, and I would never advise doing this unless you are totally sure what you are doing!

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+1 Nice answer. It's interesting comparing 'wanker' and 'cunt' - both are negative certainly, but here in Australia there are certain contexts where 'cunt' can be used almost as a synonym for 'bloke'. E.g. "Ah, Jimmy, he's a funny cunt, isn't he?" It's odd that such a harsh word has developed that usage, whereas 'wanker' which is mild by comparison is universally disparaging. –  Snubian Apr 12 '11 at 1:55
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@Snubian: It certainly is a fascinating topic. My personal theory on that (based on little hard evidence, but seems plausible) is that it's related to the use of strong insults between friends: with stronger language there is a 'bonding' effect where it is understood by both parties that the insult-calling is not serious, and that the social bond between the two is so strong that use of such a harsh term with its full force is unthinkable - hence it is funny. With a milder word, the use of its real meaning is far more plausible, and thus offence is more likely to be taken. After this... –  psmears Apr 12 '11 at 8:39
    
...is repeated many times, the stronger word begins to develop a new, much gentler, meaning, based on the meaning it has when used in a friendly way. –  psmears Apr 12 '11 at 8:41
    
Nicely put, thanks. –  Snubian Apr 13 '11 at 0:20
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It's not terribly insulting.

A quick aside into the derivation, for those watching from across the pond: "to wank" means "to masturbate". "Wanker" is an agent noun derived in the usual way. Used as an insult, which is pretty much the only way it's used normally, the implication is that you are lacking in the girlfriend or boyfriend department, and Mr Hand is about the only friend you can get in bed with you. It's essentially identical in meaning to "tosser".

Between friends, it's the sort of insult you would use if you're annoyed with someone. No great harm is done, and your irritation is effectively put across. You wouldn't use it in polite company, but it's by no means an unforgivable insult.

Between people who don't know each other well, it's a direct attack on someone's sexual desirability or prowess. That's the sort of thing that starts fights, especially when it's chanted as a taunt.

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Context is everything. With that in mind, here are some examples.

If you surprise me with a birthday cake and you're my friend and we're in the company of my peer group, I may say "Oh, you WANKER!" — not insulting and in fact almost affectionate (Greeks use this variant almost as a form of greeting "malaka"). Analogous to something like "Oh, you cheeky bastard!".

If you spill my beer in a bar on purpose, and I say "What did you do that for, you WANKER!?" then I probably am insulting you strongly. Analogous to something like "What did you do that for, you FUCKING IDIOT!?".

If used in the third person, "He's a wanker.", then it's almost invariably derogatory. Analogous to something like "He's a total arsehole/tool/dickhead.".

In terms of frequency of usage, I'd say that it isn't one of the "swear words you'd say in front of your family" so is not normally evident in common speech. It's regarded as a "naughty" swear word, unless in the company of peers, and so, like "cunt" and "fuck", is used in only close circles, except for in anger or for comedy effect.

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In general, almost any general-purpose insult may be acceptable among friends who have that relationship.

In most of the workplaces I have worked at, when appropriate, using "wanker" about a third person, would be fine. By contrast, one would want to be rather surer of the situation before using "cunt", because it's rather stronger.

On a side note, the work "berk" is a derivative of "cunt"; how offensive it is varies widely. I wouldn't use that either without really being comfortable with the context.

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Slightly worse than "idiot" (you can't imagine children saying it), but not appropriate for any professional or polite settings. It's also used playfully more than not. I think the sexual connotations are probably responsible for all of this, thinking about it.

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protected by Jasper Loy Apr 25 '12 at 17:47

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