‘bovver boy’ & ‘skinhead’: meaning and origin

The word bovver represents a nonstandard pronunciation of bother.
—Cf. the use of the verb bovver in the British-English phrase am I bovvered?.

As a noun, bovver originally denoted trouble, difficulty. In British English in 1969, this noun came to denote violent behaviour or fighting associated with skinhead gangs. The following compounds appeared that same year:
bovver boy, denoting a member of a skinhead gang;
bovver boot, denoting a heavy, sometimes steel-toed, laced boot extending to mid-calf, worn by skinheads.

The noun skinhead originally denoted a person whose hair is worn very short or shaved off entirely, especially a new recruit to the U.S. Marine Corps. In British English in 1969, this noun came to denote a young man of a working-class subculture, characterised by close-cropped hair, heavy boots and functional clothing, and behaving in an aggressive or violent way.—Cf. also hooliganism.

The following, for example, is from No love from Johnny . ., by Jeremy Hornsby, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Wednesday 3rd September 1969:

Johnny is 16. All his life he has lived in the East End of London. He left school at 15.
During the day he is to be found near Upton Park Tube station selling eggs.
In the evening he can be seen among a group of teenagers who wear tight and rather short jeans, collarless T-shirts, exposed braces, big steel-capped boots and hair erased almost to their scalps.
The lack of hair is what gives them their generic names . . crop-heads, skin-heads or peanuts. The boots are good for kicking.

Titled a skin-head, this drawing was published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Wednesday 3rd September 1969:


The nouns bovver boy and bovver boot occurred in 1969 in several newspaper articles about skinheads. These are two examples:

1-: From the Leicester Chronicle (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Friday 10th October 1969:

Violent, anti everything hippie, unfashionably dressed, a new cult sweeps the country
Skinheads’ Charter

A bizarre new cult has joined the long post-war procession of revolting youth, and it threatens to become the most violent and unpleasant to date.
Following the Teddy Boys, Mods, Rockers, Hell’s Angels and Hippies, are the Skinheads.
Skinheads appear to be against everyone and everything. Their ideal in enjoyment is a juicy punch-up, rejecting the hippie philosophy of peaceful co-existence.
They are anti-fashion, particularly when it comes to clothes which blur the distinction between male and female, and they emphasise their opposition to the flamboyance of earlier teenage cults by shaving or close-cropping their heads and wearing a ‘uniform’ devoid of colour and style.
Skinheads have deliberately chosen to wear clothes which are utterly unfashionable. The standard outfit consists of heavy calf-length lace-up boots, wrangler jeans reaching to just above the calf, button-down collar shirts or cream ‘granpa’ vests and, inexplicably, braces. The boots, known occasionally as ‘bovver boots’, are normally two sizes too large.
In addition to their unusual wardrobe, the skinheads also possess an exclusive line in slang. In common with the movement, this is naturally still growing, but the terms to look out for are: Agro—an excuse to pick a fight; Rawt—a fight; Greebo or Greaser—a Hell’s Angel; Wierdo—a hippie; Dr. Martins—boots; Tank him—punch him up.

2-: From the Coventry Evening Telegraph (Coventry, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 20th October 1969:

Skinheads—our latest youth phenomenon

With autumn has come Britain’s latest manifestation of uniformity in youth, the skinheads, writes a correspondent.
Also known as cropheads, bulletheads, spikeheads, bovver boys and agro boys, the skinheads wear their hair short, hoist their jeans up with braces and arm themselves with heavy boots (known as bother, or bovver boots because they are used when ever bother arises, i.e. in fights).
When squatters moved into an abandoned mansion in Piccadilly it was the skinheads who had the first plans to move them out. The squatters were anathema to them. They wore fancy, dirty clothes, they had long hair and strange habits. In a word they were flash.
Flash is a word used by the skinheads to denote anyone young, who, unlike them, wears deliberately flashy clothes. When the skinheads encounter anyone flash there is likely to be a bit of agro.
Agro is a contraction of “aggravation” and seems set to become a permanent addition to the English language. In practice agro consists (on the part of the hippy-hunter) of knocking a flash individual to the ground and kicking him with bovver boots.
The initial publicity the skinheads got through the squat was nothing compared to that which they got when the football season started. If the hippies are a middle-class phenomenon then the skinheads are a working-class one and their number one spot is football.
Football agro is rapidly becoming a traditional form of violence in Britain. It involves the baiting of players and referees and the ritual sacrifice of the trains which take fans to their matches.

The earliest occurrence of bovver boot that I have found is from the following, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 26th May 1969—here, bovver boot (which occurs in association with braces) refers to provincial working-class social events as opposed to the posh London gig attended by hippies that the article describes:

Out and about with the After Midnight People

The last Plastic Penguin had barely left the Lyceum after the Star United Kingdom Professional Ballroom Dancing Championships (sponsored by Ovaltine) ended at 11.30 p.m.
At the same time hippies in velvet witches’ garb, cowboy suits with tassels and Red Indian headbands, queued and sprawled on the pavement outside, just off London’s Strand, waiting to get in.
The Lyceum, hallowed hall of Miss World and Come Dancing, surrendered to the underground invaders and became the Midnight Court of the Hippies.
The all-night session with four vibrant, ear-splitting groups, Harvey Matusow’s Jews’ Harp Band and the Amoeba stroboscopic light show, was jointly mounted by Mecca and the Marquee Martin musical agency.
It is intended, in part, to provide a once-a-week community market place for the underground set. It succeeds well as a commercial venture (less so as a convincing REAL underground scene).
Mark Williams, musical editor of International Times, said “It is extraordinary, but it is easier to rock steady the night away in one’s best braces and bovver boots and have a good bundle in a provincial beer hall, than find a true underground scene in the pacemaking capital of our permissive society.”

Coined after bovver boy, the noun bovver bird denotes a young woman who takes part in violent criminal activities, in particular one associated with skinhead gangs. The earliest occurrence that I have found is, as bovverbird, from the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Tuesday 22nd August 1972:

Soccer savagery by two teenage girl fans

Soccer’s latest rowdies—the bovverbirds—were lashed by a magistrate yesterday.
He had heard how two teenaged girl fans “savagely” beat up another girl supporter after a match last Saturday.
The victim, 22-year-old Josephine Winnell, was attacked in a toilet near the Queen’s Park Rangers ground at Loftus Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London. Her attackers were Sheffield Wednesday fans Denise Griffiths, 17, and Lorraine Jenkins, 18, who had just seen their team beaten 4-2 by QPR. The court was told that Josephine, a trainee buyer, of Carlyle Road, Ealing, West London, was washing her hands when the two girls walked up to her and asked which team she supported.
When she replied “Queen’s Park Rangers,” they punched her in the face, knocked her down and kicked her.
The girls ran off when Josephine started screaming. But they were chased and later arrested, PC Michael Hinchliffe told West London Court.
Josephine suffered a split lip, a swollen mouth and scratches to her face.
Magistrate Mr. Eric Crowther told her: “It seems to have been a purely unprovoked attack on you just because you supported the wrong team.
“It seems to some of us who sit in court that sport seems to have gone out of football—being replaced by an excuse for unbridled violence.
“This is not going to be tolerated, whether perpetrated by men or women.”
Griffiths, a baker, of Sheffield, and Jenkins, unemployed, of Stockbridge, near Sheffield, both pleaded guilty to assault.
Mr. Crowther told them: “I consider both of you to be eligible for Borstal training.”
Both were remanded in custody for medical and social reports.
The court was told that Griffiths had two previous convictions for insulting behaviour and assault at football matches.

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