Wanker, literally "one who wanks (masturbates)", is a general insult. It is a pejorative term of English origin common in Britain and other parts of the English-speaking world (mainly Commonwealth nations), including Ireland, Australia and New Zealand. It initially referred to an "onanist" and is synonymous with the word tosser.
The terms wank and wanker originated in British slang during the late 19th and early 20th century. 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. More generally, wanker can carry suggestions of egotistical and self-indulgent behaviour and this is the dominant meaning in Australia and New Zealand.
Wanker may be indicated by a one-handed gesture, usually to an audience out of hearing range. 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".
In the United States, the term is understood, but rarely used, and then more in a way suggesting the target is an idiot.
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. The BBC describes it as "moderately offensive" and "almost certain" to generate complaints if used before the watershed.
In Australia, it is considered mildly offensive but is widely accepted and used in the media.
Mary Cresswell, an American etymologist, describes "wanker" as "somewhat more offensive in British use than Americans typically realize". 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.
In popular culture
"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.
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. However, on a later occasion, "wanker" was offered, and this instance was left in and broadcast unedited.
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.
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."
When acting as the ombudsman on Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld in 2011, Mike Baker presented a graph of the "wanker gap" for the first half of the program. Baker has never given an explanation of the meaning of the "wanker gap."
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."
In January 2015 the then 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".
Inspired by a controversy about The White Stripes' 2003 song "Seven Nation Army" connected to Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, the British composer Ben Comeau wrote, in the style of J. S. Bach, a four-part fugue on the riff of that song to the words "Donald Trump is a wanker."
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- 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."
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- on YouTube