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What is a Bugger?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “bugger” is used in different ways in various regions of the world. In some areas, it's used to describe someone who is distasteful or displeasing, and the word is usually used as a negative way. Other regions have slang in which the world is used affectionately and in a friendly way, as a generic term for a man or boy. It's also used as a verb, to add further confusion to the matter.

This word is derived from the Latin word for “Bulgarian,” in reference to a Catholic sect in Bulgaria that began to attract attention in the 1100s. The term was initially used to refer to a heretic, referencing beliefs held by many Christians that this sect was heretical in nature. By the 1500s, the term had come to be used in a slightly different way: to reference someone who engaged in sodomy, or the act of sodomy itself.

Pejorative associations with sodomy explain the use of this word to describe an unlikeable person, and to related uses in which the term stands in for “ruined” or “broken.” In British in particular, a situation may be said to be “buggered,” and it is meant to imply ruin. Speakers of British English also use the word as a verb, in the phrase “bugger off,” an impolite way of saying “go away.” These uses of the word are closely linked with a four letter epithet commonly utilized in English to crudely describe sexual activities.

The rise of an affectionate use of the term is a bit difficult to explain. Young boys and foolish people in particular may be referred to as “little buggers” in a way which is meant to be friendly, rather than offensive. Parents may occasionally resort to using this term when they long to employ a stronger epithet to describe an errant child, but in these cases, a certain lingering affection is still involved.

Because this word is used in so many different ways, travelers should be careful about when they use it. Even if one's own cultural norms allow for the use of the term as a friendly slang word, it may be perceived as deeply offensive by people from another culture or nation. People who aren't sure about prevailing trends in slang may want to ask a native to ensure that they do not accidentally cause offense or upset, or simply avoid it altogether.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Malka — On Sep 07, 2011

Wow, just wow. This could be just because I'm American, but the only "buggers" I'm familiar with are woolly buggers. Now that I know the context of the word in British slang, the name "woolly bugger" sounds pretty bad, so in case you don't know, a woolly bugger is a kind of artificial fly used as a fishing lure.

Woolly buggers are one of the most effective fly fishing lures out there -- if you want to fish, you should not go out without one in your toolbox, and preferably several! They come in all sorts of colors so that you can lure fish that eat many different kinds of prey, from dragonfly larva to drowning land bugs. If you get a red woolly bugger, it can even look like a crawfish.

Anyway, thank you WiseGEEK, I never knew about this particular use of "bugger". Apparently it's pretty widespread, too, because people seem to recognize it. I wonder if the only other people who have heard of woolly buggers are people who also fish?

By seHiro — On Sep 07, 2011

@TheGraham - Kerfuffle is a cute word, I agree! Crude words in other English-speaking countries do seem kind of cutesy, now that you mention it. The Australians, who were originally from England so they share slang styles somewhat, also use the word "bugger".

In addition, they have some funny words for other rude and crude words and phrases. Some of the more tactful ones to mention are "shonky" (underhanded), "technicolor yawn" (vomit), and "wowser" (prude). I'd love to meet an Australian who spoke the slang sometime -- I would probably be laughing when they were trying to say something seriously, though.

By Hawthorne — On Sep 06, 2011

Bugger is one of those British slang words with a double meaning that works perfectly for sneaking dirty humor into a lower-rated film or television show. It's like a double entendre -- anybody who doesn't know the more vulgar meaning of the word would just assume they meant one of the other common uses for it, such as "idiot".

By TheGraham — On Sep 05, 2011

I wonder why even the crude words in other cultures seem more likable than the ones here in the United States? Is it just me that likes the word "bugger" better than our, a-hem, four-letter crude word for the sexual act?

Maybe it's just because they're unusual words so they're more interesting. It seems like other English-speaking cultures tend to make their swear words...well, the word "cute" seems strange when applied to a swear word, but that's what I want to say.

For another example, in the Scots language the word for a big uproar (or the negative, disrupting variety) is "kerfuffle". Kerfuffle. Sometimes kerfluffle. Tell me that's not cute!

By matthewc23 — On Sep 05, 2011

@kentuckycat - I agree about the difference in usage between the US and UK. I have seen quite a few more recent British shows, and I still hear the word bugger used on occasion. I'm not sure they say it as much as on Monty Python, though.

I'm sure that in America we have our own equivalents to bugger, even though I can't think of any good ones off the top of my head.

Maybe part of the lack of usage in the US comes from the etymology being more linked to Europe.

By kentuckycat — On Sep 04, 2011

I didn't have any idea the term bugger had so many meanings depending on where you are.

Just from watching TV, I have noticed what the article kind of mentions that the British seem to use the term a lot more than Americans do. Also, when Brits use it, it seems to be more negative or derogatory compared to the American usage.

I have noticed it especially on shows like Monty Python's Flying Circus. That's an older show, though, and I don't watch a lot of British TV. Is it still a popular phrase?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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