School of English

University helps Virgin out of a Branson pickle

bollocks2012 marks the 35th Anniversary of the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, widely believed to be one of the most iconic and influential albums in music history. But back in 1977, the year of its release, the album's name theatened to cause a legal storm until a Professor from the School of English came to the rescue.

A recent article in Alumni Online describes how record shop owners were warned by police that they faced prosecution for indecency under the 1899 Indecent Advertisements Act if they continued to display posters advertising the album cover. Some displays were either toned down or removed but in Nottingham record shop manager Chris Seale was arrested after ignoring warnings to cover up the allegedly offensive word.

In his book Losing my Virginity, Sir Richard describes the conversation with barrister, John Mortimer, who defended Virgin Records at the trial, as they discussed the case ahead: “He (Mortimer) told me that we needed a linguistic adviser, a professor of English who could define the exact meaning of ‘bollocks’ for us. Since the case had been brought in Nottingham I called up Nottingham University. ‘Please can I speak to your professor of linguistics?’, I asked. ‘That would be Professor James Kinsley,’ said the lady on reception.”

KinsleyProfessor Kinsley was reported as telling the court that the word had been used in records dating back to the year 1,000 AD with the word meaning ‘small ball’ in Anglo Saxon times. He said it appeared in medieval bibles and veterinary books and had been used in the bible to describe small things of an appropriate shape.

Professor Kinsley is also said to have made reference to the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English by the noted lexicographer of the English language, Eric Partridge in putting forward a further explanation that the word was used colloquially through the centuries including as a nickname for clergymen, as in the notion that clergymen sometimes talked a lot of ‘nonsense’ in their sermons.

Mortimer made an impassioned plea to the magistrates that as a nation we should be proud of our Anglo Saxon heritage and of having a strong and virile language. The magistrates deliberated and the chairman is reported to have said: ''Much as my colleagues and I wholeheartedly deplore the vulgar exploitation of the worst instincts of human nature for the purchases of commercial profits by both you and your company, we must reluctantly find you not guilty of each of the four charges.''

The case made headline news throughout the land and the album debuted at number 1 in the UK album charts. It is regularly listed among the top 100 albums of all time in international music polls and surveys and is a milestone in the history of punk rock.

The current Head of the School of English, Professor Julie Sanders, said: “The story of Professor Kinsley's involvement in the Sex Pistols case is wonderful proof that the School of English has a long and proud history of engaging with topical issues through innovative applications of its research. Today's undergraduate and postgraduate students are themselves great communicators and continue to explore English language and literature in its deepest and broadest contexts from the Anglo Saxon period to the present day in ways that we hope Professor Kinsley would recognise and value.”

Posted on Monday 10th December 2012

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