Only Fools and Horses in the OED
Only Fools and Horses is a British sitcom broadcast over seven series from 1981 to 1991. It starred David Jason as Del-boy, owner of Trotter’s Independent Trading, supported by Nicholas Lyndhurst as his younger brother Rodney. While its status as one of Britain’s best-loved comedy shows is widely appreciated, its significant contribution to the Oxford English Dictionary is less well-known. The show is quoted over 80 times in the OED – an investigation into these citations helps to illuminate the show’s lexical riches, and its enduring linguistic legacy.
Twonk, plonker, and lovely jubbly
Central to the programme’s success was the relationship between the two brothers. Despite Rodney being the more academically gifted (with his 2 GCEs), Del-boy is constantly struck by his stupidity, resorting to a distinctive set of insults, such as tit, wally, and dipstick. Particularly associated with Del-boy’s lexicon is twonk – a word related to twit and twerp – whose earliest citation in the OED is taken from the show: ‘You dozy little twonk Rodney’.
Twonk recalls another disparaging epithet frequently hurled at the hapless Rodney – plonker – formerly used as an Army slang term for an artillery shell. The first example of its use to mean ‘idiot’ in OED nicely encapsulates Del-boy’s perennial frustration with his dozy brother – ‘What a plonker!’.
Perhaps most closely associated with Del’s language is the expression lovely jubbly ‘excellent, jolly good’. While lubbly jubbly originated as an advertising slogan for an orange-flavoured drink called Jubbly, the coinage and popularization of lovely jubbly is credited by the OED to the show’s writer, John Sullivan.
The Old Bill, cream-crackered, and ruby
Since Del-boy is a dealer in hooky, or stolen (compare the better-known bent), goods, he spends much of his time dodging the police, or Old Bill. This name for the police originates in a cartoon character of a complaining Cockney solider created by Bruce Bairnsfather (1888-1959) during the First World War. The character was later adopted by the Metropolitan Police, dressed in police uniform, on recruitment posters, leading to the adoption of the term as a name for the force.
Del-boy makes considerable use of the Cockney rhyming slang that was devised among East End traders in the 19th century to conceal their conversations from customers and the police. Citations in the OED range from the comparatively widely-known: would you Adam and Eve it? ‘would you believe it’, cream-crackered ‘knackered’, porky ‘lie’, to less familiar examples, such as brassic – a contracted form of brassic lint (originally boracic lint), meaning ‘skint’.
The tendency for slang to be altered in speech, and for speakers to omit the second, rhyming, component, can make such terms particularly opaque to an outsider. Mutton ‘deaf’ originated as Mutt and Jeff, characters in a comic strip devised by the US cartoonist Harry Conway Fisher (1885-1954). In colloquial speech this was re-analysed as mutton jeff, and subsequently shortened to mutton.
Ruby has nothing to do with precious stones, or with the colour red, but instead refers to a curry; its origins lie in the name of the Northern Irish singer Ruby Murray.
Chavvy, cushty, and pukka
Another group of words used in the show are of Romany origins, reflecting its extensive contribution to English slang. These include chavvy ‘baby’ – the form reflecting an Anglicisation of the Romani čhavo, used of a male child; from this same source is the better-known chav – a disparaging term for a lower-class youth engaging in loutish behaviour and often wearing designer sportsgear that became popular in South-East England in the 1990s. Because of its geographical origins, chav is often claimed to derive from a shortening of the Kent place-name Chatham, but this is probably a later folk-etymological rationalisation.
Also of Romany origin is cushty, a general purpose term meaning ‘good, fine, brilliant’. While it originates in Romani kushto, the form it has taken in English may be due to influence from the similar word cushy – borrowed from Urdu ḵušī ‘pleasure, convenience’ – which entered English in the 19th century.
Del’s ubiquitous term of approval, pukka, is also of Indian English origin; it is a borrowing of the Hindi word pakkā, meaning ‘cooked, ripe’. This word was subsequently taken up by TV chef Jamie Oliver in the catchphrase pukka tukka; given the word’s etymological origins, this phrase was more appropriate than he realised.
Given its spelling, the word khazi ‘toilet’, cited in the OED from Only Fools and Horses, might also seem to be of Indian origin, but it in fact derives from Italian casa ‘house’. It probably entered English slang via Polari – a form of secret language developed in the 18th and 19th centuries among minority groups, drawing upon Italian words, rhyming slang, and other cant terms. Khazi is first recorded in the 19th century in the forms carsey and carser; the switch to khazi is attested from the 1970s and was probably influenced by the Khasi of Khalabar, a character in the film Carry On Up the Khyber (1968), whose name puns on this word.
Yuppie, noncy, and mange tout
After watching the film Wall Street (1987) Del-boy experiences something of a transformation from the camel-hair coat and medallion wearing market trader to a city slicker. Del-boy’s reinvention as a yuppie (a 1980s acronym for a young urban professional) does not impress his friends, as is apparent from the OED entry for noncy ‘pretentious, overly affected’: ‘Yeah, he has become a bit noncy, ain he? I saw him the other day walking down the high street with his Filofax held up in front of him’.
Del’s constant struggle to use language that will help him to sound educated and successful is epitomised in his botched attempts to employ French phrases. Particularly memorable are such peculiarly inappropriate malapropisms as bain marie, bonnet de douche ‘excellent’; pot-pourri, menage a trois, ‘I don’t believe it’; as well as the multipurpose mange tout. The episode ‘Yuppy Love’ features the series’ best-known scene, in which the suave Del-boy, leaning casually back against the bar flap in a wine-bar – unaware that the bartender has just lifted it up – falls straight through it. Sometimes comedy has no need for words.