“Don’t Be a Pillock” and Other Useless Things I Can Help You With

PillockOh, there was a time when my phone would have been ringing off the hook. But not on Super Bowl Sunday. People just grab their phones and say, “Google, what is a pillock?” In a sane world, Google would spit back, “Don’t ask me! Ask your friend Frank; it’s about the only thing he’s good for!”

During the Super Bowl, Budweiser ran a “don’t drink and drive” commercial starring Helen Mirren. Now, on the one hand, I hate these kind of commercials. They remind me of a heroin dealer saying, “Now remember: don’t share syringes!” But on the other hand: Helen Mirren. Also, I’m sure that Budweiser would prefer that people take Merle Haggard’s advice and just stay home and drink.

Toward the end of this one minute long spot, Mirren says, “Don’t be a pillock!” That’s the line that should have had all my friends reaching for the phone — to call me (not to ask Google).

Now, it’s not that I have known what the word “pillock” means for a long time. In fact, although I’ve probably known it a long time, the only reason it stands out to me is because I just recently read The Truth, where William and Otto have the following conversation:

“Ah, zis is for my experiment,” said Otto proudly. “You know zat another term for an iconographer would be ‘photographer’? From the old word photus in Latation, vhich means—”

“‘To prance around like a pillock ordering everyone about as if you owned the place,’?” said William.

“Ah, you know it!”

What Does Pillock Mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “pillock” is British informal, “A stupid person.” It comes from the mid-16th century, and like most insults was originally a word for “penis.”

If Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby” asks us to consider what we are to do with our mentally ill, I would like to raise a similar question, “What are we to do with the keepers of useless knowledge?” In other words: what are we to do with me.

Don’t get me wrong: I still get by. At work, my vast store of arcane knowledge often comes in useful to spice up otherwise boring subjects. And the writer of that commercial was probably an American who had read some Terry Pratchett or spent a summer in England or otherwise picked up the word. Although you are unlikely to come upon one of us in your everyday life we are everywhere. (We are especially congregated here at Frankly Curious where the odd bit of knowledge is still valued as an end in itself.)

But certainly the day is coming where there will be no need for someone who can respond to “I’m lactose intolerant” with, “That reminds me of Marlen Haushofer!” Soon, your phone will have a setting on it, “Know-it-all friend who sometimes amuses me.” And then we will be these sad figures who roam the streets in the early mornings muttering about Schopenhauer and how Finnegans Wake really calls into question the brilliance of Ulysses. And no one should read Portrait of the Artist past high school. And back to Schopenhauer and why I should even eat today when I’ll only have to do it again tomorrow.

So really, fine. Just use your little phones. But I still think it’ll take you a while to connect “Marlen Haushofer” and “lactose intolerant.” And no cheating by looking it up on Frankly Curious!

18 thoughts on ““Don’t Be a Pillock” and Other Useless Things I Can Help You With

  1. Speaking as the usual font of knowledge for my neck of the woods-we are kept for novelty reasons and to win trivia games in bars.

    • There is that. I also think that I am something of a good storyteller, so I can usually provide a better story than Wikipedia can based on the information. What’s amazing though, is that I constantly find things I know nothing about. Good thing. Otherwise, what would be the point of life.

      Here’s something amusing. Back in late Dec, I wrote an article about oauth. And I kept seeing it as I did other work on that site. But I hadn’t a clue as to what it was. I had to go back and read it to make sure that I didn’t make a total mess of it, given that the knowledge didn’t stay with me. That seems to be the thing with me more and more. It’s probably because my brain is full, so after I’m done with new info, I have to flush it.

  2. I would say more like a person who is confidently stupid. Seriously, there are people who don’t know “pillock”? These are sad times. Heck, P.G. Wodehouse’s stuff has even been on TV.

    Soon, your phone will have a setting on it, “Know-it-all friend who sometimes amuses me.”

    Yes, but it will be an AI app rather than a phone number. Possibly voiced by Stephen Fry.

    • The worst thing is it’ll be Fry after he denies permission. Someone will come up with a way to legalize taking voice modulation from old media owned by some company. You’ll have your option of Fry, Gore Vidal, or Reagan telling old Hollywood stories.

      • Not “old” stories: constantly new and exciting stories! The best you’ve ever heard. Of course, you won’t hear them for long, because your life will be pointless and you will just kill yourself. Wait. I may be projecting.

    • No. It will definitely be voiced by Stephen Fry. That’s just too perfect.

      I haven’t seen the Fry/Laurie Jeeves series. But if Wodehouse used the term, that’s probably where I picked it up originally.

  3. Dame Helen put ‘pillock’ in herself – “I wanted a really British word, so that the Americans would go ‘pillock? What’s that?'”

    If you want Stephen Fry in interesting know-it-all mode, try ‘QI’ (standing for ‘quite interesting’) – BBC panel game in which he asks the questions, and the guests have to avoid the obvious, but actually wrong, answers. A lot of what he says has been researched before, of course, but there’s a fair amount of spontaneous obscure knowledge and anecdotes too. There are many YouTube clips.

    ‘QI’ seems like the panel game expressly designed for me. Just like ‘Only Connect’ is the quiz show (for amateurs, not celebrities – and they don’t get any cash, either – proper amateurism) for me, which I think you might like too. Here it is in a nutshell:

    “Only Connect is a much-loved show. There’s only one thing that people have ever disliked and it is the Greek letters. People have written in over the last few series and said these are pretentious. They’re elitist, snobbish even. Somebody even said they were silly. We listened. The Greek letters are gone.

    So, please choose your Egyptian hieroglyph.”


    • I like QI sometimes but it often seems like they are beating up on that poor Alan Davies.

      And yes Frank, it is on Hulu.

      • There is something I heard on QI that has been bothering me for years. It is better to wear black clothes in the sun because they do a better job of radiating heat from the body and this is more important than the amount of sunlight that they absorb. This is basic black body theory: a perfect radiator is a perfect absorber. But are clothes that are black in the visible spectrum also black in the IR spectrum? Wouldn’t people insist that their warm clothes all be white?! I think this is just a facile use of the theory to reach an interesting but probably wrong conclusion. But I don’t know.

        • I don’t think so but then all I know about it I read on the Wikipedia page because STEM has never been my strong suit. Ask me what Parliament was debating in the 1560s instead.

          • The problem is that it isn’t a physics question; it is a materials science question. I used to know people in that field, but I doubt they could have told me much about cloth anyway.

            It seems like I should know what Parliament was debating in the 1560s, but I don’t. I do know who was writing in the 1590s.

    • Yes, I’ve seen a number of them. The UK seems to put out a number of those kinds of things that seem to be little but an excuse for clever and funny people to be clever and funny. On That Mitchell and Webb Look they actually make a joke about it being Mitchell’s perfect milieu. And, of course, he too does at least one of those shows.

      • Yes, Mitchell chairs “The Unbelievable Truth” on BBC radio, in which the guests have to smuggle in True Facts among a load of nonsense they’ve made up about a subject with the others having to spot it. The programme has a running competition with QI trying to prove each other wrong.

        And to show how small the world of BBC programmes is, Victoria Coren-Mitchell of Only Connect is David Mitchell’s wife. And daughter of the late Alan Coren, who was a frequent guest on BBC radio’s ‘News Quiz’ (roughly the equivalent of “Wait Wait .. Dont’ tell Me!”). And that was later chaired by Sandi Toksvig, who is now taking over QI from Stephen Fry.

        • I have seen Mitchell as a guest on a show where some story is told to one of the teams about a member on the other team. And then the member is grilled and the team has to figure out if the claim is true. That seems to be particular good for him because it’s easy enough to believe any kind of curious behavior. Mitchell’s appeal to people like me is that he seems to have similar neuroses. I remember a skit that was based upon freaking out about about whether to flush the toilet in the middle of the night when you are a guest somewhere. I don’t know if that comes from him or not, but these are the kinds of things I worry about.

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