Was the First Wanker a Belgian Oarsman?

The Belgian “vainqueurs” or victors of the 1907 Grand Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta.

HTBS is proud to welcome famous rowing historian and collector Thomas E. Weil as a guest writer of today’s blog post. Thomas has a special take on the word “wanker”, which he thinks may have originated in the rowing world.

Thomas writes:

“Wanker” is a disparaging term, used widely throughout the Commonwealth countries, which has been “ranked as the fourth most severe pejorative in English” (Wikipedia, citing Advertising Standards Authority, December 2000, accessed via Wayback Machine. Retrieved January 14, 2012. (pdf)). While a number of sources trace its origins to post-WW1 (the Online Etymology Dictionary, for instance, cites its earliest appearance to “British naval slang for ‘midshipman’ (1929)”, I am inclined to agree with the statement that “The terms wank and wanker originated in British slang during the late 19th and early 20th century” (Wikipedia, citing A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Eric Partridge, Paul Beale. Routledge, 15 Nov 2002).

Falling squarely within this earlier time frame, my hypothesis for the origin of the term points directly to the results of the Grand Challenge Cup event at Henley Royal Regatta in 1906, 1907 and 1909, when, to the shock and horror of the English rowing world, the premier eights prize of the kingdom was won by non-English crews.

Several American eights had crossed the Atlantic to be vanquished over the almost three-quarters of a century that the Grand had been contested, but European crews had only rarely bothered to venture the short distance across the English Channel to challenge for the trophy before 1906. So, when Belgian crews from two clubs in Ghent won England’s most precious rowing prize three times in four years (and skipped the fourth because it was an Olympic year), English oarsmen were inconsolably traumatized. What was a frustrated Englishman to do?

It probably didn’t help matters much when the Royal Club Nautique de Gand struck a commemorative medal that showed a toga-wearing woman seated on a Roman galley deck victoriously blowing a trumpet while the British lion cowered at her feet.

The commemorative medal struck by the Royal Club Nautique de Gand. On the other side of the medal it says: “De Stad Gent/Great [sic!] Challenge Cup/Henley”.

Nor would the British have been pleased at the sight of postcards touting the victories that popped up in the mail following the Belgian accomplishments. The postcards, which showed the crews posed on a bench or seated in their boat, were often headed “Vainqueurs au Grand Challenge Cup a Henley” (see image on top of a 1907 postcard).

Was the choice of “vainqueurs” (or “victors”), rather than the more typically English and modest term “winners”, particularly provocative? Perhaps it was. Was it so provocative as to have instigated a vicious verbal counter-volley?  It could have been …

“Vainqueur”, for practical purposes, is pronounced “vang-cur”, with the emphasis on the second syllable. Given the not uncommon practice in some circles of pronouncing a “v” like a “w”, could annoyed Englishmen have picked up on the Belgians’ own term, and started sarcastically and disparagingly referring to them as “wang-curs”, or “wankers” (with the accent on the first syllable)? Certainly they could have!

Did they? Who knows, but all of the ingredients for an international slanging war were there, and the timing is right for the supposition that first uses occurred some time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And that usage may easily have been exacerbated in later years by the contempt for the Europeans who crumbled so quickly in the face of Germany’s WWI advances, only then to be saved at the cost of so many British lives.

Should our breasts not swell with pride to think that the sport we love may have been the source of “the fourth most severe pejorative in English”? Absolutely. (And might we be grateful that it was the Belgians and not the French who first succeeded at Henley, in which event we might be using the term “grenwee” instead of wanker? Peut-être …)

4 comments

  1. And thanks for the education. I didn't know the origin of this word was so recent. I always assumed that the 4 letter root was one of those Anglo-Saxon 4 letter words that go back centuries.

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