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Word of the week: ponce

The current UK prime minister is Boris Johnson, still, hanging in there until the election of the new leader of the Tory Party, who will become his successor in 10 Downing Street. That’s how it works these days, and the results should be in on 5 September. There are reports that Johnson is getting booed and heckled by British holidaymakers while holidaying in Greece. According to a tweet replying to a comment on Marina Hyde’s Twitter feed, “Italian TV just now had a British man shouting, “Get back to work you fat ponce”.’ It’s trending in various ways, but I have been unable to track down a video clip.

“Ponce” is not a word you hear much these days, not as a noun anyway. You might hear it as a verb, as in “poncing about”, and you might hear the adjective “poncy”, but I haven’t heard someone described as a “ponce” for a long time. The Cambridge Dictionary offers these two definitions: “a man who controls prostitutes and takes a large part of the money that they earn for himself” (UK slang) and “a man who does not behave, dress, or speak in a traditionally male way, especially one who behaves in a very careful way” (UK offensive). I don’t recall meeting anyone who fits the first description, and the second doesn’t quite capture how I recall the word being used in the 1970s. It was more about people showing off than behaving “in a very careful way”, or not behaving “in a traditionally male way”.

The word became part of our family’s oral history, the stories that we have told for decades. It was part of the phrase “big-headed ponce”. If my father were still alive I’m sure he would have be saying it right now.

Here’s how I wrote about it in my book of memories, which you can still buy in case you haven’t done so yet.

“Big-headed ponce”

We were at the fair, on Ealing Common. We got there early. It was quiet. Most of the rides weren’t ready. We wandered past the stalls. There was one where you threw ping-pong balls into goldfish bowls, 3 for 10p. I wanted to try it, I wanted to see if I could do it. It looked easy. I didn’t want a prize, I just wanted to have a go.

“Dad, can I have a go?”

Dad looked at the stall, and looked at the prizes, little bags of sweets and funny looking dolls’ heads on lollipop sticks.

“Sure the prizes aren’t even worth 10p,” he said, and walked away.

I wondered if the man beside the goldfish bowls would let me throw one anyway, to see if I could do it. He didn’t look at me. He was looking at my Dad and he said “Big-headed ponce”. It wasn’t loud enough for Dad to hear, but I heard it.

I ran after my Dad and said “Daddy, that man just called you a big-headed ponce”. He stopped. As soon as I said it I wondered if I shouldn’t have. Would Dad turn back, go to the stall, and say something, or do something?

Dad started walking again, the same way he was going before, and laughed, laughed out loud, and said “Big-headed ponce. Jesus, that’s great. Big-headed ponce. Ha!” And all the time we were there he kept repeating it, putting on an English accent, saying “Big-headed ponce” to me, or just to himself, sticking his lips out to make it sound even funnier. And sometimes he’d put on his cockney accent, saying things like “Nah, mate!” and then “Big-headed ponce” again, in a deeper voice.

[Taken from “1000 Memories”, available as a Kindle book here (UK) or here (US).]

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