Wednesday, 21 October 2009


Non-British readers may find this post a little baffling, and perhaps even British readers aged under 40. I feel a bit like the aged narrator at the outset of an adventure story: "I think it my duty that I set down, while the memory is still fresh, a true account of what transpired in those long-gone events -- can it really be 40 years ago? -- so that it may be passed on to a new generation, who may find it of no little interest to learn that their elders were as susceptible to youthful folly as themselves -- nay, perhaps even more so. Etc."

To begin at the beginning. You may, at some point, have heard someone described as "a wally", or "a bit of a wally". It's an expression that had its vogue in the 70s and 80s of the last century, but may still be heard on the lips of the older sort. [Sorry, I can't shake off this R.L. Stevenson tone]. We've already discussed "minced oaths" in a previous posts (Gadzooks!), and at root "wally" is clearly a minced-oath version of "wanker", but with the added cachet (back in its heyday) of hipness and contemporaneity.

There has been a lot of discussion, over the years, of the origin of the term "wally" in the pejorative sense of "an uncool, embarrassing person, prone to impulsive acts of clumsiness and foolishness" -- in many ways, an equivalent to the "shlemiel"* of Yiddish. This discussion has been confused by the fact that the word "wally" itself has a long heritage. I remember, for example, how when I was eight we used to walk home from Cubs in the winter dark, and would stop off for a steaming sixpenny bag of chips. A few of the boys with East End parents would ask for "a six penn'orth and a wally, please"; that is, a pickled gherkin, fished with tongs from the enormous cloudy jar on the chip-shop counter, mysterious and murky as a display of preserved body parts.

But the advent of the usage under discussion can be dated, and accounted for, fairly precisely. It all started at one of those chaotic early 70s open air rock festivals (Weeley? Bickershaw?) when a group of friends somehow lost contact with one of their number named, um, Wally. Easily done, in the Somme-like conditions. What distinguished this group from others, however, was that they loyally spent the gaps between acts wandering the grounds calling out, ever more disconsolately, "Wally? Wally! WALLY??" They even got one of the on-stage announcers to ask over the PA, "Wally? Has anyone seen Wally?", and the "Wally" refrain was taken up by the crowd. For a time, to call out "Wally!" in a random quiet moment was considered the very pinnacle of wit, and hilarity would reliably ensue.

Naturally, people brought this novelty home with them, including some of my own friends, who gleefully explained the whole thing the next week at school. It seemed to have been the best bit (indeed, the only good bit) about sleeping in a wet field, in unsanitary conditions, occasionally subjected to a poorly-amplified, wind-blown barrage of music. Sure enough, at the next season of gigs in our little town, someone would reliably shout "Wally!" in a quiet moment, to gales of laughter and the bafflement of visiting bands. It was a kind of in-crowd, "I was there" gesture. I imagine the same scenario was repeated all round the country.

It didn't take long for the novelty to wear off, however. It just stopped being funny. In the end, the only ones to call out "Wally!" at gigs were the kind of attention-seeking, over-excited twits, impervious to their own tragic unhipness, who couldn't possibly ever have "been there" and who, naturally enough, came to be referred to as "Wallies".

Date? 1972. Around the same time as young suburban things in Britain started exclaiming "No way!", using air quotes, and decrying the "rip-offs" which they (alright, we) couldn't "get our heads round", probably later than ultra-cool urbanites but a decade or more before any of these cult-ish new speech mannerisms entered the mainstream.

I have to say, even if shouting "Wally!" stopped being funny in 1972, it still amuses me mightily to hear the likes of cabinet ministers talking solemnly about "Rip-Off Britain" or exclaiming "Higher taxes? No way!", like the small-town head-bangers which, of course, a few of them might once have been. Like minced oaths, it's one of the pleasures of language-watching to see which subcultural currents rise to the surface, and how long it takes for trash talk to emerge from the mouths of the respectable.

And perhaps you can also see the roots (conscious or unconscious) of Martin Handford's mystifyingly popular Where's Wally? books of the 1980s -- the main point of which is trying to find a bespectacled fool named Wally hidden in a vast crowd of tiny people. Sounds familiar? What I hadn't realised is that this very British "Wally" went on to become "Waldo" in the USA, had a bit of a makeover, and found massive commercial success. Who knew? It's Fleetwood Mac all over again.

* Not to be confused with a "shlemazel", a habitually unlucky person. Definition according to The Joys of Yiddish: the shlemiel is the one who spills the soup over the shlemazel.


shaggy dog pix said...

I wonder if one should be considered a wally for being grateful to someone for posting the story of the origin of the term. Well, I'm comfortable with my inner "Wally", and so, thanks for this! Really. I've often wondered about it. Which, I suppose, is yet another sign of deep-rooted wally-ness.


Paul Mc Cann said...

".....It's an expression that had its vogue in the 70s and 80s of the last century, but may still be heard on the lips of the older sort"
I'm always amused at the take up of the old expression "cool". Not so bad on the lips of a youngster but not on those of someone who used it the first time round.

Mike C. said...

We all need to get in touch with our inner Wally, shaggy dog pix, if only to tell the bugger to shut up, so I'm glad to be of service!

Paul: Yes, "cool" is a very good example -- a word that was out of use by 1970 and, you would have thought, irredeemably associated with jazz and the 1950s, came back from nowhere to join the ever-increasing list of synonyms for "quite good".

As a language-watcher, I've currently got my eye on the ironic use by smart people of old-fashioned superlatives like "splendid" or "smashing", and also the gradual incursion into British English of the universal American jock-speak word "outstanding".


Struan said...

Or: fascinating.

Wally means china in Scotland - as in ceramic. No genteel (or aspiring genteel) mantelpiece is complete without a pair of wally dugs.

Swedish children and teenagers say 'shit!' instead of 'wow!' (or 'gosh'). It causes no end of trouble with my lot's grandparents.

Mike J C said...

I wonder how many other names have been used this way. When I was a kid in the sixties in South Dakota we used "Melvin"
I wonder is "Mike" was ever used this way?
I do agree that having an inner wally-ness should be embraced, but I don't think an inner melvin-ness is ever desirable.