The Oxford "-er"
is a colloquial, sometimes facetious, abbreviation, prevalent at Oxford University
from about 1875, which is thought to have been borrowed from the slang of Rugby School
. The term was defined by the New Zealand-born lexicographer Eric Partridge
in his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English
(several editions 1937–61).
Rugger, footer and soccer
The "-er" gave rise to such words as rugger
for Rugby football
(or the rarer togger
) for Association football
and the now archaic footer
for either code (but more usually soccer).
The term "soccer" was popularised by a prominent English footballer, Charles Wreford-Brown (1866–1951). The first recorded use of soccer was in 1895. However two years earlier The Western Gazette reported that "W. Neilson was elected captain of ‘rugger’ and T. N. Perkins of ‘socker’ and, Henry Watson Fowler recommended socker in preference to "soccer" to emphasise its correct pronunciation (i.e. hard "cc/ck"). In this context, he suggested that "baccy", because of the "cc" in "tobacco", was "more acceptable than soccer" (there being no "cc" in "Association").
In Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves (1963), a novel of P G Wodehouse (1881–1975), Bertie Wooster was asked whether he was fond of rugger, to which he replied, "I don't think I know him". The sports writer E. W. Swanton, who joined the London Evening Standard in 1927, recalled that "Rugby football ... in those days, I think, was never called anything but rugger unless it were just football". Around the same time the Conservative Minister Leo Amery noted that, for his thirteen year old Harrovian son Jack (who was executed for treason in 1945), "footer in the rain [was] a very real grievance". As late as 1972 the retired headmaster of a Hertfordshire grammar school recalled "the footer" (by which he meant rugby) having had a poor season in 1953–4. In Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Oxford undergraduate Anthony Blanche claims that "I was lunching with my p-p-preposterous tutor. He thought it very odd my leaving when I did. I told him I had to change for f-f-footer."
What is and isn't
Typically such words are formed by abbreviating or altering the original word and adding "-er". Words to which "-er" is simply suffixed to provide a word with a different
, though related, meaning – such as "Peeler" (early Metropolitan policeman, after Sir Robert Peel
) and "exhibitioner" (an undergraduate holding a type of scholarship called an exhibition) – are not examples. Nor are slang nouns like "bounder" or "scorcher", formed by adding "-er" to a verb. "Topper" (for "top hat
") may appear to be an example, but in fact, as a word meaning excellent person or thing, existed from the early 18th century. Both "top hat" and "topper" as synonymous terms date from Regency
1810–20) and Partridge (op. cit.
) seems to suggest that the former, itself originally slang, may have been derived from the latter.
Words like "rotter" (a disagreeable person, after "rotten") are somewhere in between. However, fiver and tenner (for five and ten pound note respectively) probably do fit the "-er" mould, as, more obviously, does oncer (one pound note), though this was always less prevalent than the higher denominations and is virtually obsolete following the introduction of the pound coin in 1983.
During the First World War the Belgian town of Ypres was known to British soldiers as "Wipers". This had some hallmarks of an "-er" coinage and the form would have been familiar to many young officers; however, "Wipers" was essentially an attempt to anglicize a name (/ipʁ/) that some soldiers found difficult to pronounce.
In the BBC TV series Blackadder Goes Forth (Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, 1988), a comedy series set in the trenches during the First World War, Captain Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) often referred to Private Baldrick (Tony Robinson) as Balders.
The role of Harry
Oxford "-er" coinages may be embellished by preceding the slang formulation with the word "Harry". Thus an apology to Atkins for non-provision of champagne might take the form:
"No shampers tonight, Atters. I'm Harry Skinters (= low on funds)".
Test Match Special
The "-er" form was famously used on BBC radio's Test Match Special
(1957-) by Brian Johnston
and New College, Oxford
, who bestowed nicknames on his fellow commentators on test cricket
: thus, Blowers
for Henry Blofeld
(scorer Bill Frindall
, known also as "the Bearded Wonder") and McGillers
). The habit extended to cricketers such as Phil Tufnell
), but the '-ie' suffix is more common for the current crop of players, such as Michael Vaughan
The former Hampshire County Cricket Club captain Colin Ingleby-Mackenzie, whose most usual nickname was McCrackers, was sometimes addressed as Ingers when he made occasional appearances on TMS and former Middlesex bowler and journalist Mike Selvey was referred to as Selvers. The programme's producer, Peter Baxter, cited Backers as his own nickname and Jenkers that of commentator and cricketing journalist, Christopher Martin-Jenkins (though the latter was better known by his initials, "CMJ").
Johnston himself was known as Johnners. Following his death in 1994, the satirical magazine Private Eye published a cartoon of Johnston arriving at the gates of heaven with the greeting "Morning, Godders". An earlier Eye cartoon by McLachlan, reproduced in the 2007 edition of Wisden, included in its long caption a reference to former England bowler Fred Trueman as Fredders (in fact, his common nickname, bestowed by Johnston, was "Sir Frederick"), while yummers (i.e. "yummy") was applied to "another lovely cake sent in by one of our listeners".
Other personal forms
Other "-er"'s as personal names include:
- Athers: Lancashire and England cricket captain Michael Atherton (b.1968), who subsequently became a commentator on both radio and TV ("all cricket-lovers have crackpot theories, even Athers);
- Beckers: former England football captain David Beckham (b.1975) became known almost universally as "Becks" (and with his wife Victoria, formerly of the Spice Girls, as "Posh and Becks"), but there are some instances of his being referred to as "Beckers);
- Betjers: as an undergraduate, the poet John Betjeman (1906–1984) was generally known as "Betjy" or "Betj", but Philip Larkin, among others, later adopted the "-er" form;
- Blashers: the magazine Country Life referred to the explorer Colonel John Blashford-Snell (b.1936) as "Blashers" (as in "Hats off to Blashers", reporting his having assisted in the design a hat for explorers);
- Britters: American singer Britney Spears (b.1981) was often described in the British press as "Britters". Unsurprisingly, her boyfriend when she first rose to fame, the singer Justin Timberlake (b.1981), was Timbers.
- Cheggers: broadcaster Keith Chegwin (b.1957);
- Griggers: recounting how she met John Betjeman, Alice Jennings, a programme engineer at the BBC during the Second World War referred to producer Geoffrey Grigson (1905–85) as follows: "'John said, 'Who's that girl?' And Griggers from a great height said, 'That's your PE'";
- Hatters was used by Private Eye with reference to Roy, Lord Hattersley (b.1934), former Deputy Leader of the British Labour Party;
- From the 1960s and subsequently, Elanwy Jones of Collett Dickenson Pearce was known to her circle as Lanners;
- Nickers: it is perhaps inevitable that people named Nicholas will continue, from time to time, to be addressed as such;
- Pragger Wagger: various holders of the title of Prince of Wales, probably originally referring to Edward VII when heir apparent;
- Rampers: the Surrey (and former Middlesex) cricketer Mark Ramprakash (b. 1969): "I could not help wondering how 'Rampers' would have dealt with their ageing attack" (Bill Frindall, 2007);
- Rodders for Rodney, as in the BBC radio comedy series, Beyond Our Ken (1958–64), when Hugh Paddick, playing the part of Charles, addressed his camp friend Rodney (Kenneth Williams): "Absolutely dolly, Rodders";
- Thickers: John Thicknesse, cricket correspondent of the London Evening Standard 1967–96;
- Tollers: the Oxford nickname of writer J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973);
- Widders: former British Government Minister Ann Widdecombe (b.1947) was so described by journalist Hugo Vickers;
- Woolers: sports journalist Ian Wooldridge (1932–2007).
University and City locations
"-Er" forms of Oxford locations include:
Other Oxonian forms
- Bonners was undergraduate slang for bonfire (c1890s), possibly, as Partridge suggests, an allusion to Bishop Edmund Bonner of London (c1500–1569) who was involved in the burning of alleged heretics under Queen Mary I.
- Bumpers for a bumping rowing-race was in use at both Oxford and Cambridge from about the turn of the 20th century and may have arisen first at Shrewsbury School.
- Congratters (or simply, gratters), now very dated indeed as a form of congratulations, was recorded by Desmond Coke (1879–1931) in Sandford of Merton (1903).
- Cuppers is an inter-collegiate sporting competition, derived from "cup".
- Divvers referred to divinity as a subject of study, as, for example, when John Betjeman, as an undergraduate in 1928, published "a special 'Divvers' number of The University News, complete with cut-out Old and New Testament cribs in the form of shirt cuffs to enable candidates to cheat in the exam".
- Eccer (pronounced ekker) for exercise.
(pregnant, in the sense of "with child") is one of the most commonly used "-er" terms.
Brekker, breakker or brekkers (for breakfast) is a coinage from the 1880s still in occasional use. In 1996, Jessica Mitford (1917–1996) in one of her final letters to her sister, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, referred to "proper boiled eggs for breakker". Shampers (champagne) occurs frequently, often spelt champers: "They like champers up north".
Simon Raven (1927–2001), describing an episode on military service in the late 1940s, referred several times to a particular brigadier as "the Brigger".
Terms from Harrow School include bluer (blue blazer) and yarder (school yard).
A flat-sided conker (fruit of a horse-chestnut) is known as a cheeser, an "-er" contraction of "cheese-cutter". The names applied to conkers that have triumphed in conker fights are arguably "-er" forms ("one-er", "twelver", etc), though "conker" itself is derived from a dialect word for the shell of a snail.
Wagger pagger bagger (waste-paper basket) may have fallen into disuse.
P G Wodehouse, E F Benson & Agatha Christie
There are surprisingly few "-ers" in the books of P G Wodehouse, though, with reference to a boundary in cricket scoring four runs, his poem, "The Cricketer in Winter" contained the line, "And giving batsmen needless fourers
" (which he rhymed with "more errs"). The "-er" was evident also in the school cricketing stories of E F Benson
(this, of course, was Mr Howliss)" (David Blaize
, 1916). In the two Chimneys novels
of Agatha Christie
, a pompous Cabinet Minister
was nicknamed Codders
because of his bulging eyes (presumably an allusion to the cod
Evidence of badders
for the racquet sport of badminton
is largely anecdotal, as it is in respect of the horse trials
held since 1949 in the grounds of Badminton House
, Gloucestershire. The same is true of Skeggers
seaside resort of Skegness
, famously described in a railway poster of 1908 as "so
bracing") and Honkers
, for the former British colony of Hong Kong
, though this form (probably late 20th century) does appear on a number of websites and Wodehouse's first employer, The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation
(HSBC, founded 1865), is sometimes referred to in the City of London
as "Honkers and Shankers". The stadium at Twickenham
in South West London, used for major Rugby Union fixtures, including the annual Oxford v. Cambridge
, is often abbreviated to Twickers
and journalist Frank Keating has referred to the annual lawn tennis
championships at Wimbledon
Moving on - but not entirely: Jen, Harry Potter and Gazza
Test Match Special
aside, by the mid 20th century the "-er" was being replaced by snappier nicknames. Thus, in the stories of Anthony Buckeridge
(1912–2004), set in a preparatory school of the 1950s, Jennings was "Jen", and not Jenners. Even so, in the Harry Potter
books of J. K. Rowling
(b.1965), Dudley Dursley was addressed as Dudders
The adjective butters, meaning ugly (an abbreviation of "Everything 'but a' face), is a 21st century example of the "-er" as "street" slang, as in "She's well butters, innit". This is similar in concept to the well-established starkers (stark naked). The origin of bonkers (initially meaning light-headed and, latterly, crazy) is uncertain, but seems to date from the Second World War and is most likely an "-er" coinage derived from "bonk" (in the sense of a blow to the head). Similarly, crackers is probably derived from "cracked" and ultimately from "crazy"; Partridge cited "get the crackers" as a late 19th century slang for "to go mad
The late 20th century form, probably Australian in origin, that gave rise to such nicknames as "Gazza" (Paul Gascoigne), "Hezza" (Michael Heseltine), "Prezza" (John Prescott), "Bozza" (Boris Johnson), "Wozza" (Antony Worrall Thompson) and "Mozza" (Morrissey) has some similarities to the Oxford "-er". In Private Eyes occasional spoof romance, Duchess of Love, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall addressed her husband, Prince Charles, as "Chazza", while he referred to her as Cammers'.