This article is about the pejorative term. For other uses, see Wanker (disambiguation).
Not to be confused with Wanka.

Graffiti calling a rival group "Wankers"

Wanker is a term that literally means "one who wanks (masturbates)" but has since become a general insult. It is a pejorative term of English origin common in Britain and other parts of the English-speaking world, including Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. It initially referred to an "onanist" and is synonymous with the word tosser.[1]


"Wanker" hand gesture

The terms wank and wanker originated in British slang during the late 19th and early 20th century.[2][3] In modern usage it is usually a general term of contempt rather than a commentary on sexual habits. Wanker has similar meanings and overtones to American pejoratives like jerk or jerk-off.[4] More generally, wanker can carry suggestions of egotistical and self-indulgent behaviour and this is the dominant meaning in Australia and New Zealand.[5]

Wanker may be indicated by a one-handed gesture,[6] usually to an audience out of hearing range.[4] It is performed 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, "that person is a wanker".[7]

In the United States, the term is understood, but rarely used, and then more in a way suggesting the target is an idiot.[8]

Related are terms such as "wanker's colic", for an undiagnosed visceral pain, and "wanker's doom", for excessive masturbation, from slang used in the RAF and British prisons since the 1920s.[2]

Differences in perceived levels of offensiveness

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.[9] The BBC describes it as 'moderately offensive' and 'almost certain' to generate complaints if used before the watershed.[10]

In Australia, it is considered mildly offensive but is widely accepted and used in the media.[11]

Mary Cresswell, an American etymologist, describes 'wanker' as "somewhat more offensive in British use than Americans typically realize".[12] 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.[13]

"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 and every national radio and television service.[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 the film This Is Spinal Tap, David St. Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel both use the word out of earshot to describe fellow rock star Duke Fame after a chance encounter.[16]

On the American television show Married... with Children, Peggy Bundy's family is from the fictional Wanker County.

On the British television quiz show Countdown, 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), but has been shown as an outtake on other shows.[17] However, on a later occasion, 'wanker' was offered, and this instance was left in and broadcast unedited.

The comedy show Mork & Mindy featured a character named Mr. Wanker who was Mindy's landlord.[18] This was broadcast on American TV and later British TV.

Australian band TISM released an album in 1998 entitled www.tism.wanker.com (which was an active website for a few months after its release). One of the themes in its lyrics is breaking down male society into two distinct cultures: Yobs (the subject of the first single released from the album) and wankers. Its third single, "Whatareya?", offers examples of differences between the types and tells the listener to decide which one he is.

In February 2009, U2 member Bono called Chris Martin a wanker live on air during Jo Whiley's Radio 1 show.[19]

During a live radio debate on 28 May 2010, the future President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, urged conservative American radio host Michael Graham to "be proud to be a decent American rather than being just a wanker whipping up fear."[20][21]

When acting as the ombudsman on Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld in 2011, Mike Baker presents a graph of the "wanker gap" for the first half of the program.[22] Baker has never given an explanation of the meaning of the "wanker gap."

Jack Vance wrote a science fiction book entitled Servants of the Wankh in 1969. The title was changed to The Wannek due to its sounding like wanker.[23]

Iron Maiden's song "El Dorado" contains a veiled reference to the term in the line "I'm a clever banker's face, with just a letter out of place.” In live performances, singer Bruce Dickinson would change to an explicit mention: "I'm a clever wanker's face, just a banker out of place."[24]

In January 2015 Mayor of London Boris Johnson described British-born jihadists as "pornography-obsessed inadequates who only turn to radical Islam when they fail to make it with girls...They are literally wankers".[25]


  1. Words, Meaning And Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology. Howard Jackson, Etienne Zé Amvela. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000
  2. 1 2 A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: Colloquialisms and Catch Phrases, Fossilised Jokes and Puns, General Nicknames, Vulgarisms and Such Americanisms As Have Been Naturalised. Eric Partridge, Paul Beale. Routledge, 15 Nov 2002
  3. wank. Online Etymology Dictionary.
  4. 1 2 Etherington, Mike: The very Best of British The American's guide to speaking British
  5. Ludowyk, Frederick: Anatomy of Swearing
  6. How to make a Wanker gesture and how not to make it
  7. Rude Hand Gestures of the World: A Guide to Offending Without Words. Lefevre, Romana. Chronicle Books, 17 Aug 2011
  8. "Delete expletives?". Advertising Standards Authority, accessed via Wayback Machine. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 8, 2012. Retrieved January 14, 2012.
  9. BBC - Editorial guidelines, definition of offensive language . Retrieved 2007-01-20. Archived February 21, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. 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
  11. Cresswell, Mary. "Word Of The Day: November 19, 1996".
  12. Dowell, Ben (2008-06-09). "The Simpsons: Channel 4 apologises for pre-watershed swearing". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2008-06-09.
  13. The encyclopedia of popular music: Indexes, Volume 10. Colin Larkin. Oxford University Press, 2006
  14. Phil Collins interview, Playboy magazine October 1986 Archived February 6, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  15. "This Is Spinal Tap (1984) - Quotes". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 21 April 2013.
  16. Mork & Mindy (TV). USA: Henderson Productions.
  17. "Bono Calls Chris Martin A Wanker". Music-News.com. Retrieved 2009-03-01.
  18. Michael Graham v Michael D. Newstalk.ie, 2010-05-28. (Quote from 15 min 25 sec.)
  19. Newstalk Radio debate "The fact if the matter is, look, young people from the United States are travelling all over the world again. They're welcome in Europe, they're backpackers in hostels, people are talking to them because the image of the United States – we've got away from this war mongering – is getting better. The many mistakes Obama is making...at least 47 million people that the likes of you condemn to no health care in a country that I was proud to work in – these people are going to have some health care, so this is the issue, so therefore be proud to be a decent American rather than being just a wanker whipping up fear."
  20. "Halftime Report: 12/28/11". Fox News. 2010-09-23. Retrieved 2011-12-29.
  21. "Wankh versus Wannek". Starling.us. Retrieved April 10, 2014.
  22. Iron Maiden (2012). En Vivo!. EMI.
  23. Gardner, Bill (30 January 2015). "Boris Johnson: Porn-obsessed Isil jihadis are 'literally w***ers'". Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 30 January 2015.

Further reading

Look up wank in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Look up wanker in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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