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The House Ethics Committee has now hired an outside counsel to investigate its own bollixed investigation into the conduct of Representative Maxine Waters.

(“The House’s Farcical Self-Investigation”, The New York Times, July 24, 2011.)

Is bollixed less innocent than it seems?

Is it reasonable to assume that neither writer is aware that bollix is a direct adaption of bollocks (or ballocks), meaning “testicles”?

Finally, can we use it in formal English?

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The New York Times actually said bollixed? Really? Cool! Guess it’s more acceptable in print than fucked-up, at least if the Grey Lady says it. In contrast, the Economist will write fucked up, but only when citing someone with a literal quote. I should search them for bollixing bits. – tchrist May 11 '12 at 20:47
@tchrist bollixed has 508 hits on NYT. The Times: "The speaker then said he felt inclined for a bit of fucking." – user21032 May 11 '12 at 20:53
Well, you get different numbers of hits for all of bollixed, bollicks, bollocks, and fuck at the Times. I still have to wonder whether national readers all recognize the testicular component; doesn’t take much balls to talk about hidden balls. But even if you don’t, it sure doesn’t sound like “formal English” to me. – tchrist May 11 '12 at 21:01
@tchrist - See here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harcourt_interpolation – user21032 May 11 '12 at 21:03
I'd say in the US, "bollixed up" doesn't have any obscenity at all, even in the sense of offensive language. I'd put it on par with British "muddled"...it may be impolite to say that someone muddled something, but the words themselves aren't offensive. There may be some to those familiar with the interjection "bollocks" (which just doesn't exist over here), but it'd be less than for "screwed up" and way less than for "fucked up". – Theodore Murdock May 12 '12 at 0:17
up vote 1 down vote accepted

The fact of the matter is regardless of how it's spelled, Americans don't say bollocks anywhere near as often as Brits. And even when they do, it's much more likely to be used (and understood) as a low-impact general-purpose profanity, rather than a specific anatomical reference.

I can't find the reference right now, but I'm pretty sure Obama publicly referred to something as being "all bolloxed up" (in disarray) recently. I also believe that Americans are much more likely to use the -xed spellings than Brits (they did pretty much invent sox, after all).

In consequence of the American "sanitisation" and spelling bias, Brits themselves are likely to find written instances of bollox less offensive than bollocks (this also happens with asshole/arsehole).

Related examples of "sanitisation" include berk (Berkeley Hunt = cunt), Father Ted's feck (=fuck), and perhaps Princess Anne's "Naff off!" to obtrusive press photographers.

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You think of x as American? Modulo the rather icky “sox” (which might be unique to spectator-sports teams), I’d think of it the other way around. I’m thinking of words that in the US are -ct- but in the UK lasted longer as -x- words. I don’t know whether that still holds; I’ve seen conflicting data. I’m thinking of words like connection | connexion, deflection | deflexion, genuflexion | genuflection, inflection | inflexion, and so on. The ordering of alternatives is per the current OED online. – tchrist May 11 '12 at 22:32
@tchrist: Compare American and British spellings and frequencies. We Brits talk bollocks five times more than Americans. Or at least, we write it five times as often - and when we do, we're less likely to spell it with an "x". – FumbleFingers May 11 '12 at 22:39
...also note that OED is increasingly attempting to "internationalise" itself - it's no longer really appropriate to cite it as a guide to British usage. – FumbleFingers May 11 '12 at 22:42
I doubt whether Americans who haven’t lived in the UK ever say bollocks — although Aussies and Kiwis do. I don’t count myself, since as I’ve said, I’m corrupt (by virtue/vice of having lived in the UK, amongst other things). One may call the OED’s current practices attempts at internationalization if one wishes, but I see it as nothing more nor less than trying to embrace English wherever and however it is used by native speakers, not solely in the UK or US. I rather like that, myself. – tchrist May 11 '12 at 22:45
@DazManCat: OED says Etymology: Abbrev. of Berkeley (or Berkshire) Hunt, rhyming slang for cunt. I assume they put Berkshire in second (and in brackets) because it's considered less likely. Their earliest citation (R. Graves, Lars Porsena, 1929) actually says "There are other examples of rhyming slang in connection with words of abuse. E.g.: ‘Gehout you berk.’ Berk = Berkeley = Berkeley Hunt". Checking with Google I see little evidence of Berkshire Hunt except in this context, but the Berkeley Hunt had long been famous. – FumbleFingers May 16 '13 at 17:51

Despite the fact that both words have the same origins, they are not the same, at least in American usage. Wikipedia draws a distinction between bollocks and bollix and states that "To 'bollix things up' is not considered offensive in American English." Merriam Webster defines bollix as "to throw into disorder; also : bungle" without indicating that the term is vulgar or offensive.

It seems the term has a long history of specialized U.S. usage; Merriam Webster dates it to 1937 but there are examples in "respectable" publications as far back as 1902 (Purdue Debris, page 254: "I simply wanted to say that I never was any other way except all bollixed up on E.M.F. formula").

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protected by tchrist Jul 2 '14 at 2:50

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