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I have recently heard the phrase bugger-lugs used to refer to a person present, as in "How much do I owe you, bugger-lugs?". I have also heard it used to refer to a moderately mischievous child ("what have you been up to, bugger-lugs?"), and I can also remember my mother using the phrase to refer to the cat, in the same way as the mischievous child.

But does anyone know where the phrase comes from? I have tried a search and found the results here, which doesn't shed much light on the matter. Green's Dictionary of Slang suggests it is an affectionate term of address, usually among men, and hints at a naval origin, but otherwise sheds no light on the matter.

Edit following Hugo's link produces possibly an alternative meaning:-

"Well known in 40s / 50s Lancashire. For many years I thought it was 'bug-a-lugs', never having seen it written ... gross or corpulent habit' from fusty + lug.('lug' in the sense of heavy or slow) Perhaps from buggy-lugs or bugs-in-lugs?"

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  • Green's 'Dictionary of Slang' is presumably the same as 'Chambers Slang Dictionary' edited by Jonathon Green. – Barrie England Nov 8 '11 at 21:45
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    I found this when searching for the one word buggerlugs: englishforums.com/English/Buggerlugs/2/wngxv/Post.htm – Hugo Nov 8 '11 at 22:03
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    @Hugo, thank you for that. I have added this possible alternative meaning to the question. – Brian Hooper Nov 8 '11 at 22:13
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    @BrianHooper: Wow, that looks pretty comprehensive. I didn't know it existed. 'Chambers Slang Dictionary' also has the verb 'buggerlug' (to waste time on trivial activities) and the noun 'bugger-lugger' (one who does such). I assume Green's 'Dictionary of Slang' has them as well. – Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 8:19
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    Not sure if relevant, but in my family, it was always a placeholder for a non-present person whose name was temporarily forgotten - "I don't have it, I gave it to buggerlugs a few weeks ago..." – Steve Bennett Oct 16 '14 at 3:55

11 Answers 11

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The Urban Dictionary explains it thus:

Consider the two parts of this phrase,

bugger: (verb) to sodomize

lugs: (noun) ears

Put these together and you get bugger-lugs: ears of a size large enough to afford good grip while being sodomized.

I should add that I've heard this phrase my entire life, and never as a term of affection. In my experience (Australian English) it's a playful insult, usually aimed at a small child.

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    "Ears of a size large enough to afford good grip while being sodomized" aimed at a child? I fear for these children. – user11550 Nov 9 '11 at 0:47
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    I'd be suspicious of that etymology. Excellent though the Urban Dictionary is in many ways, it suffers from a lack of scholarly evidence. – Barrie England Nov 9 '11 at 8:22
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    Thank you, @Snubian, I suspected this might be the origin of the phrase; I suppose the real question is how it came to be used in the way it is. – Brian Hooper Nov 10 '11 at 12:37
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    I'm with Barrie on this one. This was the etymology that immediately sprang to mind when I read the question title: which is generally a good sign that in a similar fashion, someone else made it up. – Benjol Dec 21 '11 at 12:33
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    -1 If that were the true etymology it wouldn't be such a popular phrase. – ukayer May 9 '13 at 22:50
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I am 54 years old while writing this. I was born and raised in Scotland and have lived here all my life.

Buggerlugs was an expression used to describe a child as a third party to another adult. It is definitely affectionate and has nothing to do with buggery.

It may have some etymology in the word 'buggered' - as in (UK) broken, and obviously lugs which are (Scots) ears.

It is a playful expression and no-one ever saw any harm in it. My grandmother - born in 1910 and a very proper, protestant woman used it and she never used foul language.

It would be used such as "You'd better take buggerlugs with you. She doesn't like to miss out."

It could also be used to describe a family pet. 'Buggerlugs hasn't been out yet. He's sittin' there with his legs crossed.'

It could (marginally) be used by one man to another when describing a male superior (military rank/landowner/manager etc) "You'd better not let buggerlugs see you doing that; he'll have your guts for garters."

It could also be used to describe an inferior (apprentice) as in, 'It was running fine until buggerlugs here pushed the stop button and shut it down.'

Mostly though it was a harmless affectionate expression widely used, very innocently, to describe a child or pet.

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  • I come from s.England (not Scotland) and would endorse everything said in the above answer (except that I have no knowledge of workplace usage). – TrevorD Jun 29 '13 at 23:40
  • I know that an older person from Canada's East Coast referred to the family dog as "Buggerlugs" whilst roughhousing with the mutt. It was definitely affectionate, and was not modified when ladies or children were about. There are plenty of folks with Scottish ancestry in Canada's Maritime provinces. – Spehro Pefhany May 11 '14 at 18:47
  • This ought to be the accepted answer since it is the most correct in terms of usage. – Pharap Feb 13 '18 at 22:53
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My apologies for the paucity of my information in Green's Dictionary of Slang / Chambers Slang Dictionary. I remain convinced that it is essentially affectionate. As regards its use in Lancashire, I have no doubt it was, and elsewhere too, but even if it was originally dialectal (i.e. a regional use) it must have been a 20th century creation, since it doesn't appear in Joseph Wright's English Dialect Dictionary (1905). If anything, the phrase was popularised by its rhyming assonance.

Might I also suggest that the reference to sodomy is a confusion by the writer with 'bugger's grips', which refer to sideburns / sideboards and which term does indeed convey that imagery.

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I found this as definition #4 here: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Buggerlugs and I think it stands a better chance of being the correct or most appropriate etymology than some of the references above.

An affectionate term for a child, particularly when it isn't listening to the adult, the implication being that the child's ears (lugs) have been fucked (or buggered) and can no longer hear as a result. "Oy, buggerlugs, are you listening?"

I was called this many times as a child back in the UK. It could be from the North (Yorkshire or Northumberland).

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  • I agree it's more likely to come from this definition. It's very common to call someone a 'silly bugger' without the literal meaning of committing sodomy. – Mynamite May 9 '13 at 23:18
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I have memories of the expression "Boggerlugs" or "Buggerlugs" in the English midlands back in the 50's. It was used extensively in our neighbourhood. It was used as a tone of endearment when referring to a mischievous young family member: "You're such a boggerlugs". Indeed, I use it today when referring to a mischievous grandchild, it was always used with a smile on the face and never used as a re-dress or ticking off.

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I've tracked down the first written appearance of "buggerlugs" to the book 'Life and adventure in the south Pacific':

"Shiver my timbers! old buggerlugs, if you don't come to terms pretty soon, I'll treat you to a salt-water bath; three quarters, or away you go."

'A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English' defines "buggerlugs" as being nautical slang meaning:

"Those little tufts of hair which are sometimes seen on men's cheekbones." Cf. "bugger's grips".

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I'm about to reach my three-score and ten years, and spent my formative ones in Norfolk. The only context in which I ever heard it was derogatory for a person who deliberately listened-in on other people's conversations.

For example, said by one mother to another; in the presence of her child:

'Sorry, can't tell you now, Buggerlugs is listening'.

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I totally agree with what Bruce has said above. I grew up in New Zealand and am currently 60 years old. I and my contempories used the term 'Buggerlugs' in each of the situations described by Bruce. My parents and their friends also used the term in similar ways. There was never any sexual intent in the usage. I am now living in Australia and the term is still used to this day by many acquantances, again in the same fashion.

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The OED gives buggerlugs and bug-a-lugs at the same entry.

Bugger started off as "Bogomil" - a member of a 13th century Bulgarian sect. The sect was heretical and, in order to villianise them, the Catholic Church's propaganda against them accused them of homosexual practices. Bugger then took the meaning of an active homosexual.

In this meaning it was a very offensive word, but by the mid-19th century it had lost a lot of its force when used colloquially and tended to be a rather friendly form, and it is probable that this is because of confusion with "beggar" in the sense of someone who deserves sympathy. It is certainly understood that way and has no sexual connotations.

Currently, "bugger" isn't used to describe heretics. It is very rare as a noun to mean "someone who penetrates in anal sex" It is used with a qualifying adjective as a colloquial/slang that indicates its meaning as a mild invective or endearment.

bugger, n.1 Origin: A borrowing from French. Etymon: French bugre. Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Middle French bugre, bougre (Chiefly British, Australian, and New Zealand.)

1. Usually with the and capital initial. A heretic; spec. a member of the Albigenses (Albigenses n.). In later use historical and rare.

1340 Ayenbite (1866) 19 He ne belefþ þet he ssolde, ase deþ þe bougre and þe heretike. [...]

1753 Chambers's Cycl. Suppl. The Buggers are mentioned by Matthew Paris..under the name of Bugares... They were strenuously refuted by Fr. Robert, a dominican, surnamed the Bugger, as having formerly made profession of this heresy. [...]

1989 W. Weaver tr. U. Eco Foucault's Pendulum xviii. 126 The bougres were simply Bogomils, Cathars of Bulgarian origin.

The OED notes

"In the Middle Ages, anal sex and various other sexual practices which were deprecated (including bestiality, pederasty, and incest) were attributed to members of various, especially dualist, heresies, such as the Bogomils and the Albigenses (or Cathars). Such charges were common during the period of the Albigensian Crusade (1209–29),"

The following is an example of "bugger" used to mean both a heretic, a homosexual, and as an insult:

1694 in T. Brown & J. Savage tr. C. de St. Évremond Misc. Ess. II. sig. Mm2v I clapt the Pistol to his Head, when a certain Bougre of a Jesuit [Fr. un B.. de Jesuite] pusht my Arm aside, and hinder'd my Design.

This then gave rise to the more general term

2. A person who penetrates the anus of someone during sexual intercourse; a person who performs any act classed as ‘buggery’. Chiefly as a term of abuse or contempt. Cf. buggerer n. Now generally considered offensive but also somewhat archaic in this sense. The term formerly had a more or less taboo status (especially in 19th cent. British use) which is now weakened or lost in most contexts, ...

1540 J. Palsgrave tr. G. Gnapheus Comedye of Acolastus ii. iii. sig. Liiiv He is a bougour [L. cinaedus] or one that is paste shame... He is an ympe of the stewes.

1965 Times 25 May 16/2 Lord Goddard said..if this bill [i.e. the 1965 UK Sexual Offences Bill] goes through it would be a charter for these buggers' clubs.

3.a. slang. Used as a term of abuse or contempt for a person, [animal or thing].

1955 Times 27 Jan. 6/5 A remark of the policeman to him was: ‘Don't argue, get those buggers out of here.’

Now more common in weakened use in sense 3b.

3b. slang and colloquial. Used familiarly or playfully to express affection, compassion, etc.: a person or (occasionally) an animal. Chiefly with modifying adjective as little, lazy, poor, silly, etc. Cf. beggar n. 6b, beggar n.

1854 M. J. Holmes Tempest & Sunshine 203 ‘If I'd known all you city buggers was comin' I'd a kivered my bar feet’.

2014 Sydney Morning Herald (Nexis) 31 May 38 The young of today are just a bunch of lazy buggers who've never had it so good.

Now to Lug

Lug – a stick or pole 1. A long stick or pole; the branch or limb of a tree. (See also log n.1 1d.)

a1250 Owl & Nightingale 1609 An evereuch man is widh me wrodh, An me mid stone and lugge threteth. […] 1853 Jrnl. Royal Agric. Soc. 14 ii. 441 In Herefordshire the ordinary mode of gathering the fruit is by sending men to beat the trees with long slender poles or rods,..these poles are provincially termed ‘polting lugs’.

Lug - Chiefly Scottish and northern.

1. One of the flaps or lappets of a cap or bonnet, covering the ears.

1495 in T. Dickson Accts. Treasurer Scotl. (1877) I. 225 Item, fra Henry Cant, ij cappis wyth luggis; price xxxvjs.

Lug 3. an object resembling the external ear

a. The handle of a pitcher, etc. Also technical in various uses, denoting an appendage by which an object may be lifted or suspended;

1624 Fairfax Inventory in Archaeologia (1884) 48 151 One copper pan with 2 lugges.

Lug = ear n. Now colloquial or jocular.

1916 ‘Taffrail’ Pincher Martin ii. 28 Give 'im a clip under the lug!


It is very doubtful that the bugger in "buggerlugs" is taken in any of the above meanings: Buggers (of any description/meaning) are not known for having particularly distinctive ears, so "Buggerlugs" would not seem to be the best variant, and thus "bug-a-lugs" seems to be the original and gives the clue as to the origin:

"bug-a-lugs" slang (originally Nautical).

1. In singular. Chiefly English regional (Dorset) and in form bugalug. A likeness or model of a person, typically a person who is hated; an effigy. Also occasionally: something contemptible or undesirable. Now rare.

1839 Wabash Enquirer (Terre Haute, Indiana) 23 Aug. 3/4 Stout's statue of Queen Victoria..was completely destroyed..having slipped..into the hold of one of the Boston packets, whither it was destined... The editor of the Boston Gazette has thus lost his chance of falling in love with her buggerlug!

1886 W. Barnes Gloss. Dorset Dial. 52 Bug-a-lug, an effigy, a bugbear. A scarecrow or gally-bagger. It means a bug or bugbear on a pole; a-lug meaning on a lug or pole.

1983 G. Morley Smuggling in Hampshire & Dorset, 1700–1850 xi. 174 On more than one occasion an over-zealous Customs Officer was warned off permanently by having..his ‘bugalug’, or effigy, burnt in front of his house.[1]

It is unfortunate that the first quote (1839) is "buggerlug". Note that this is American English and I suspect that it is a misspelling. Colloquialisms usually take a long time to be written down and when they are, they are often done phonetically.

The 1886 quote gives the meaning, and in the 1983 quote the author seems to have found an old use.

A bug =

2. A self-important, pompous, or conceited person; a pre-eminent or powerful person. In later use only in big bug n.

1536 T. Revel tr. F. Lambert Summe Christianitie sig. A.viiv The symple people, have the judgement of the spirit above all such proud bugges [L. larvas] the which we call Magistrinostri.

2004 B. Dylan Chronicles I. iii. 115 The big bugs in the press kept promoting me as the mouthpiece, spokesman, or even conscience of a generation.

Additionally, "Bug" has the meaning of

bug, n.1 An imaginary evil spirit or creature; a bogeyman. Also: an object or source of (esp. needless) fear or dread; an imaginary terror. Cf. scare-bug n., bugbear n. 2. Now rare.

In quot. a1425: a scarecrow.

a1425 (▸c1395) Bible (Wycliffite, L.V.) (Royal) (1850) Baruch vi. 69 (MED) As a bugge either a man of raggis [L. formido] in a place where gourdis wexen kepith no thing, so ben her goddis of tree.[2]

1535 Bible (Coverdale) Psalms xc[i]. 5 Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night.

1915 D. Beard Amer. Boys' Bk. of Bugs, Butterflies & Beetles 7 Bugs..stood for some imaginary hobgoblins or terrible nightmare things which never had any existence out of dreamland.

This leaves only "-a-"

A - (prefix) 2. With nouns and verb stems, forming adverbs (and derived adjectives and prepositions) expressing activity, position, condition, etc. Now chiefly poetic.A selection of rarely occurring formations is given below.

1673 J. Arrowsmith Reformation Prol. Who with Religions Twang and Mouth a-splay / Should Conventicle now instead of play.

1999 Esquire Mar. 33/3 Cynics often wonder, aloud, and asmirk.

Conclusion

Bug-a-lugs has lost all connection with its origins, and is now a regional word. The exact intent of its meaning is given by the context, but is somewhat similar to "bugger/beggar" above.

From the above, and although little is certain, I would favour the idea that "buggerlugs" is a version of "bug-a-lug" = a scarecrow (or other egify supported by a stick or pole.)

[1]I think it is possible to see the connection between the self-important, pompous, or conceited person; a pre-eminent or powerful person and an object or source of fear or dread in the quote of 1983 The customs officer was the one who would arrest them (smugglers), and so they feared him.

[2] The idea of a scarecrow is to put fear into crows - hence the like with "bug" - the an object or source of (esp. needless) fear or dread. On the other hand, humans see scarecrows in a positive light, although a little scruffy.

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I never heard the expression before moving to Lancashire (1957) from the West Riding (now South Yorkshire). So where it originated I have no idea. It is uncommon in the Midlands where I live now.

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My mother used it all the time; it was common in my day in Australia for parents to call their kids buggerlugs as a playful term when you were mucking up or not listening.

I still use it occasionally myself, but I don’t ever remember it being used as a derogatory comment at children. Being the little bugger I was as a kid, it was almost my second name.

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