June 19, 2008 11:32 PM   Subscribe

I've been watching a lot of UK TV lately. It seems that in British shows or movies it's not uncommon to see one character head-butt another where in similar situations in US productions a sucker-punch would be employed. Has anyone else noticed this and is there a decent explanation for the difference?

Shameless is the immediate source of my observation, but other programs have made me wonder the same thing.
posted by the christopher hundreds to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Turn it around. Why do Americans sucker punch instead of headbutt?

The answer? They are two different societies with slightly varying ideas on what the lowest thing someone in a fight can do.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 12:46 AM on June 20, 2008

What's a sucker punch?

If it involves a fist, surely the difference is in the rapidity of execution?

Not that Frank usually has any but two speeds, they being dead slow and paralytic.

posted by DrtyBlvd at 1:54 AM on June 20, 2008

DrtyBlvd - A sucker punch is when you surprise someone with a punch, as opposed to punching them while 'fighting'. Hilarious example
posted by thedaniel at 2:01 AM on June 20, 2008

Best answer: It's a classic British hard man move which communicates to the viewer that the character grew up streetfighting: 1. it is more difficult to execute correctly than a punch, which implies some practice beforehand, and 2. it is dirtier than an unadorned sucker punch; the correct part of the head is harder, heavier, and likely already closer to the other party's soft tissue, than a fist. Add the fact that the character is demonstrating that he doesn't even care that he's endangering his own skull in the process and it tells you a lot about him.

It even has a name.

What is more remarkable IMO is the stage-y big-radius telegraphed punches that are the convention in US film and video when something was "the last straw" or whatever. The British version seems more accurate: that when things come to violence, most violent people will probably open with the fastest, ugliest thing they can do rather than winding up and making a mean face for a moment before performing their cathartic violent act.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 2:05 AM on June 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I believe (and hopefully someone who knows the history of the move more than I do is likely to chime in) that it originated in rugby scrums - when you're in the front frow of a scrum facing your opponent your arms are around your teammate's shoulders, and all you can really do is nut them one with your head.
posted by Pinback at 2:13 AM on June 20, 2008

Great question. Why are you seeing it on British TV? My guess is that the action has it's own payload of additional meanings in the UK that it doesn't have in the US.

I associate it with football violence, late 70s/early 80s skinheads and violent, damaged people in general, and I see it as particularly brutal. Therefore in a comedy programme, it's over-the-top violence to the point of being ludicrous. (A typical example might be a frail granny bringing down a thug with a headbutt).

(On preview, Time Machine's going in the same direction).

I wonder if the US conventions are something that can be traced to Hollywood Westerns/Gangster movies etc. If so, it says good things about (parts of) the US that their lexicon of violence is learnt from film, not real-life.
posted by Leon at 2:14 AM on June 20, 2008

From my own observations, it depends on the usage. Perhaps more so than the sucker punch, it can either be comedic (as in Blackadder or Bottom), or violent and brutal (various Brit gangster movies etc.).

From the comedic angle, it's probably the unexpected nature, especially when performed by someone from whom you wouldn't expect such an act, or the way in which the recipient immediately crumples to the floor (and the protagonist generally walks away adjusting their hair). It's generally an exaggerated movement - arching the neck and back - or a small movement which in real life would do little damage. It allows a quick punchline ("You idiot" *smack*) in a way that the comparative hold-the-recipient-with-long-drawback-of-fist equivalent doesn't have. I think also in the UK the sucker punch would be seen as unsporting in a way (very much taking someone by surprise, in a sense from behind their back, whilst at least you see a headbutt coming), which obviously wouldn't sit well with various notions of fair play. It allows a quick, semi-honourable end to a joke.

Regarding violence, it is brutal. Your head is heavier than a fist, and if you smash someone's nose in with your forehead, it does a lot of damage. It's fast, efficient, and generally pre-empts or finishes the fight. It represents the protagonist being vicious, and not really having much regard for their own safety. The close physical contact, literally face to face, emphasises the down-and-dirty nature of someone using it.
posted by djgh at 3:15 AM on June 20, 2008

I think part of it, as with so much in Britain, is class based. Anyone can throw a punch but a head-butt is that much more visceral and violent and so is associated with "hard men" as others have said. The comedy aspect is then that a weaker character/upper class fopp/old granny/etc would do something so totally out of character. The comedy is less prnounced with the sucker punch because it's easier to imagine a wider range of characters throwing punch than headbutting someone.
posted by patricio at 3:42 AM on June 20, 2008

I think it is because the Anglo-Saxon is by nature a more savage, base creature, whereas his trans-Atlantic cousin, while outwardly more effete and sophisticated, is more scheming and mercenary.

And that, my friends is a grossly oversimplified, offensively generalised SCIENCE FACT.
posted by Jofus at 4:36 AM on June 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Head-butting is practised in the UK. I know a couple of people who have been head-butted. When a guy has his arms pinned to his sides by an antagonist, a head-butt can deal an unexpected blow.
posted by londongeezer at 5:03 AM on June 20, 2008

Best answer: Just adding more color to this one... as well as being known as the 'Glasgow Kiss' as Your Time Machine Sucks linked to, it is also called the 'Liverpool Nod'. Both Glasgow and Liverpool used to (still do) have reputations as 'hard' cities, very working-class population and prone to pub fights after a night of drinking.

A head-butt is a very fast way to end an altercation with little damage to the person that is applying the head-butt. (Glaswegians used to refer to a Stanley Razor Knife as a 'Glasgow Credit Card' - never leave home without it.)
posted by 543DoublePlay at 6:50 AM on June 20, 2008

I'm from the US and spent six months living in London a couple of years ago. While there I witnessed a number of real-life head-butting incidents, something I've never seen here.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:20 AM on June 20, 2008

Just adding more color to this one... as well as being known as the 'Glasgow Kiss' as Your Time Machine Sucks linked to, it is also called the 'Liverpool Nod'

And in Liverpool, it's called the "Kirkby Kiss", Kirkby being an overspill estate/New Town to the North of the city. (I wonder if all these place-specific terms are invented proudly by hard residents, or applied by outsiders to places with violent reputations?)
posted by jack_mo at 1:05 PM on June 20, 2008

I dunno, but it was a Glaswegian who told me about the Glasgow Kiss (though he actually called it the Glaswegian Kiss, but I went with Glasgow because I've heard it that way more since then).
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 3:29 PM on June 20, 2008

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