column in Issue 29 (January 2002), we met the 19th century murdering
grave-robbers Burke and Hare. One detail reported was that after Burke’s
trial there arose in England a popular verb to burke that meant “to
suffocate or strangle”, an observation that prompted an email to the
Editor from a reader who referred to another birk in wide use in
assuming that you’d already recognize this latter
manifestation as slang for “fool”, our Editor still
yearned for more, and queried me as to whether something
attention-grabbing linguistically might be forthcoming on
invoke Sherlock Holmes, the case is not without its points of interest.
As to its
spelling, all the dictionaries I’ve been able to consult give the word as
berk, though most concede several variants — birk, burk
and even burke. The reason for the preferred spelling will become
clear in just a tick, but for the sake of completeness I’d first better
give all the meanings on offer. So far, I’ve turned up “fool”, “idiot”,
“boor”, “annoying person”, “inept person”, “despicable person”. A
derogatory term, to say the least.
in the 1930s as an abbreviation of either Berkshire Hunt or
Berkeley Hunt, but there’s disagreement as to which is the true
original phrase, both being plausible. The Royal Berkshire Hunt takes
place, I understand, every year on Easter Monday. Whether the Berkeley
Hunt is still held, I couldn’t say.
aside, the crucial point is that Berkshire/Berkeley Hunt is rhyming
slang for cunt — here in the sense of “dickhead” or “pain in the
arse”. And, as we all know, two-word rhyming slang expressions almost
always end up truncated — whence berk.
interesting conundrum, though. The first syllable of both Berkshire
and Berkeley is pronounced “bark” in England, so how come berk
rhymes with “lurk”?
conjecture is this. The official enunciation (“British Received
Pronunciation”) may well be “bark”, but it’s doubtful that the Cockneys
who invented this bit of rhyming slang would pronounce
Berkshire/Berkeley that way.
for berk. A fuller treatment of rhyming slang in a future issue,
maybe? Fingers crossed.