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Wanker is a pejorative term of English origin, common in Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth countries, including Canada, Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It initially referred to an onanist but has since become a general insult. It is synonymous with tosser.



The term wanker originated from British slang in the 1940s[1]. Wanker literally means "one who wanks (masturbates)". In modern usage it is usually a general insult. It conveys contempt, not commentary on sexual habits. Wanker has similar meanings and overtones to American pejoratives like jerk,[2] and jerk-off. One connotation implies egotistical and self-indulgent behaviour. This is the dominant meaning in New Zealand and Australia[3].

"Wanker" hand gesture

Wanker may be indicated by a one-handed gesture,[4] usually to an audience out of hearing range.[2] 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, which is equivalent to saying, "[you are a] wanker".

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.[5] 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", and it reached number 22 in the 1978 UK charts. It was banned by BBC Radio 1.[6]

In México is an offensive way to tell someone you are better than him, just making the sign or also saying ("Me la pelas")

Wanker in other contexts

Wanker is also a German surname (German pronunciation: [ˈvaŋkɐ]); according to the 1990 census, "Wanker" is the 53,492nd most common surname in the United States.[7]

Several American TV shows have used this surname. The sitcom Married... with Children character Peggy Bundy whose maiden name was Wanker, who was from a fictitious Wanker county in Wisconsin.

An episode of the U.S. comedy Mork & Mindy featured a character called Oliver 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. The Australian television series DAAS_Kapital, a vehicle for the Doug Anthony All Stars, featured a Tim Ferguson character called Wayne Kerr.

Wanker can also have other meanings, depending on context. Some American college students have used it as a slang term for penis.[8]

There is an unincorporated locale in Oregon called Wanker's Corner; named after the surname of a saloon-keeper who founded an eponymous establishment there in the early 20th century.

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, credits himself as Thomas Wander to distance himself from his name's English-language connotations.[9]


In December 2000, the Advertising Standards Authority published research on attitudes of the British public to pejoratives. It ranked wanker as the fourth most severe pejorative in English.[10] The BBC describes it as 'moderately offensive' and 'almost certain' to generate complaints if used before the watershed.[11] In Australia it is considered mildly offensive but is widely accepted and used in the media.[12]

Mary Cresswell, an American etymologist, describes 'wanker' as "somewhat more offensive in British use than Americans typically realize".[13] 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.[14]

Phil Collins used the word in his 1984 cameo appearance on Miami Vice and has sometimes been credited with introducing the word to America.[15]

In February 2009, Bono called Chris Martin a wanker live on air during Jo Whiley's Radio 1 show.[16]


  1. ^ Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^ a b Etherington, Mike: The very Best of British The American's guide to speaking British
  3. ^ Ludowyk, Frederick: Anatomy of Swearing
  4. ^ How to make a Wanker gesture and how not to make it
  5. ^ Countdown
  6. ^
  7. ^ 1990 US Census
  8. ^ Cameron, Deborah 'Naming of Parts: Gender, Culture, and Terms for the Penis among American College Students' in American Speech Vol. 67, No. 4 p372
  9. ^
  10. ^ "Delete expletives?" (PDF). Advertising Standards Authority. Retrieved January 6, 2007.  (pdf)
  11. ^ BBC - Editorial guidelines, definition of offensive language (accessed 2007-01-20)
  12. ^ Karen Stollznow, 2004. Whinger! Wowser! Wanker! Aussie English: Deprecatory language and the Australian ethos. In Christo Moskovsky (ed), Proceedings of the 2003 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society
  13. ^ Cresswell, Mary. "Word Of The Day: November 19, 1996". .
  14. ^ Dowell, Ben (2008-06-09). "The Simpsons: Channel 4 apologises for pre-watershed swearing". The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-06-09. 
  15. ^ Phil Collins interview, Playboy magazine October 1986
  16. ^ "Bono Calls Chris Martin A Wanker". Retrieved 2009-03-01. 

Further reading

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