Wanker literally means "one who wanks (masturbates)". It is normally intended as a general insult rather than as an accusation. It conveys contempt, not commentary on sexual habits. Wanker has similar meanings and overtones to American pejoratives like jerk, jerk-off, and prick. One particular connotation is of someone self-obsessed or a show-off (usually male).
The term wanker originated from British slang in the 1940s, based on the verb wank.
By the 1970s, the general meaning of wanker had shifted from its literal origin (as a masturbator) to that of a generic insult; for example, "a contemptible person". This shift in usage is comparable with that of dick, arse or jerk.
The word has developed a metaphorical usage, in which to wank or to be a wanker implies egotistical and self-indulgent behaviour. This is the dominant meaning in Australia.
It is also used as a more general insult. This meaning is used in phrases like smug wanker, egotistical wanker or pretentious wanker. Wanker is sometimes used to refer to a person in the same way as snob for subjects perceived as pretentious; for instance, wine wanker, fashion wanker, car wanker. This meaning is shown in "Whatareya?", a song by TISM, which contrasts "yobs" (uncouth working class) to "wankers" (which according to the context means pretentious intellectuals). In the United States the current usage of the term is more in reference to the person being an idiot or moron, as opposed to the standard dick or jerk synonym in other countries.
Wanker may be indicated by a one-handed gesture, usually to an audience out of hearing range. It is shown by curling the fingers of the hand into a loose fist and moving the hand back and forth to mime male masturbation. This is equivalent to saying, "[you are a] wanker". Some motorists show the wanking gesture in front of the rear-view mirror, where other motorists from behind can see the gesture.
Wanker is the centre of a popular story regarding the British television quiz show Countdown in which contestants have to form the longest word possible from nine randomly selected letters. On one occasion the letters permitted the spelling of 'wanker' (or 'wankers') and both contestants replied with the word, leading one to quip "we've got a pair of wankers." The sequence was edited out of the show (as is common with risqué words, although the spelling of "erection" was permitted) but has been shown as an outtake on other shows. However on a later occasion, 'wanker' was offered, and this instance was left in and broadcast unedited.
"The Winker's Song (Misprint)" by Ivor Biggun is one of many songs about masturbation. It describes the singer: "I'm a wanker, I'm a wanker. And it does me good like it bloody well should." It reached number 22 in the UK charts. It was banned by BBC Radio 1.
An episode of the U.S. comedy Mork & Mindy featured a character called Arnold Wanker and led to severe editing when the commercial network ITV originally broadcast it in Britain; when the more liberal Channel Four rebroadcast it some years later, it was aired unedited. An inept stuntman in the Australian Paul Hogan Show was called Leo Wanker, a double entendre playing on a local impression of Leo (the Starsign) – egotistical and self-indulgent, with the equivalent in the Australian sense of a Wanker – self-indulgent and egotistical.
Wanker can also have other meanings, depending on context. Some American college students have used it as a slang term for penis. This usage implies that the purpose of the penis is for masturbation.
Austrian film and television composer Thomas Wanker, who wrote music for films such as The Day After Tomorrow and 10,000 B.C., and TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has recently begun crediting himself as Thomas Wander in order to distance himself from his name's English-language connotations.
An American etymologist describes 'wanker' as "somewhat more offensive in British use than Americans typically realize". The word was used twice to comic effect in the Simpsons episode "Trash of the Titans", which caused no offence to American audiences, but prompted complaints on occasions when the episode was broadcast unedited in the United Kingdom.