[ Issue 31 ]

The word 'berk' holds a lot of interest for Emily Bronto

Let Bikwil introduce you to the word 'berk'


Harlish Goop writes about a twentieth century echo of the murdering grave-robbers Burke and Hare — to wit the word berk.

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A Word in Your Pink Shell-like — Harlish Goop


In Fizzgig’s Verandah 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 England.

Despite 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 the matter.

Well, to 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.

It arose 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.

Origins 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.

Here’s an interesting conundrum, though. The first syllable of both Berkshire and Berkeley is pronounced “bark” in England, so how come berk rhymes with “lurk”?

My 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.

So much for berk. A fuller treatment of rhyming slang in a future issue, maybe? Fingers crossed.

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