A friend of mine, who is renovating a bathroom in her house, posted the following to Facebook yesterday:
The real skylight is one floor above in the bathroom we’re renovating. A water leak during demolition banjaxed my entire kitchen ceiling.
To which another friend replied:
Outstanding use of “banjaxed.”
I’d never noticed the word before, although I should have as it appears in several rather famous books that I have read. It’s Irish slang meaning to batter or ruin.
Banjax is first recorded as a noun meaning a mess in 1925, when Sean O’Casey uses it in his play Juno and the Paycock:
I’m tellin’ you the scholar, Bentham, made a banjax o’ the Will.
The word seems to have been a favorite of Flann O’Brien. The adjective appears in his 1939 At Swim-Two-Birds:
Here is his black heart sitting there […] in the middle of the pulp of his banjaxed corpse.
And O’Brien would use it again the next year in The Third Policeman:
The brother’s valve is banjaxed.
And he would use it as a verb in his 1961 Hard Life:
Some people at one time thought they were trying to banjax and bewilder the One, Holy and Apostolic.
Samuel Beckett also used it in his 1955 play Waiting for Godot:
Lucky might get going all of a sudden. Then we’d be banjaxed.
So as slang terms go, banjax has a pretty good pedigree.
The OED gives its origin as “unknown; perhaps originally Dublin slang.” Green’s Dictionary of Slang is more helpful, saying it’s a semi-euphemistic variation of ballocks. Green’s speculation makes a lot of sense when we look at the development of ballocks. It of course started out as meaning testicles, but by 1919 it was being used to mean rubbish, nonsense. There’s also a 1901 use of bollocks as a verb, but that’s in an American context. E. P. Alexander, who had commanded the Confederate artillery barrage that supported Pickett’s Charge on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg wrote in a 1901 letter:
Never, never, never did Gen. Lee himself bollox a fight as he did this.
So it’s a short leap from ballocks meaning a mess, to make a mess to banjax, essentially meaning the same thing.
Oh, and my friend whose kitchen ceiling was banjaxed, she’s Irish-American. So that fits.
Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2010, s.v. banjax, v., banjax, n., ballocks, n.
Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. banjax, v. (1989), bollock, n. and adj. (March 2008), bollocks, v. (June 2008)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton