The Origins of 10 Great Insults
Insults involving body parts, and the things that come out of them, are as old as time. PG-rated slang terms, however, usually have a richer but more obscure history. Here are the origins of some familiar insults that will make calling out all the rubes, bums, cretins, and punks in your life a more fulfilling experience.
1. Punk (n), “A worthless person.”
Punk has had a long, sordid career as an insult in the English language. Shakespeare used it as an especially dirty word for prostitute in 1602. Eventually it came to mean young male prostitutes, particularly those paired up with seasoned railroad bums. This evolved by the 1920s to mean "young, inexperienced boy.” Inexperienced soon translated to good-for-nothing and criminal. With that definition confirmed, it was ready to be adopted in the 1970s by British men in spiky leathers and mohawks screaming enraged metaphors about politics into a microphone. Now I can never listen to Johnny Rotten without thinking, “hobo’s concubine.”
2. Brat (n), “A child, typically a badly behaved one.”
The worst kind of kids in the olden days weren’t loud and spoiled. They were really, really poor. Brat as a slang term dates from the 1500s in England, and meant “beggar’s child.” Beggars often made sure their children were prominently displayed to garner more sympathy and money, which might have been particularly annoying to passersby. Bratt is also an old English word meaning “ragged garment” or “cloak.” So, brats often wore bratts, affirming that they were in fact, brats.
3. Jerk (n), “A tedious and ineffectual person.”
Steam engines were awesome—way better than sailing around Cape Horn if you needed to get from New York to California. But, since they ran on steam, they needed to be refilled with water ridiculously often. “Water-stops” were built all along the railroad lines. These were just water towers, with hanging chains that the boiler man would “jerk” to start the water flowing. Towns sprang up around many of these water-stops. Some thrived, and some were just jerk-water towns, populated with “jerks.”
4. Dunce (n), “Slow-witted or stupid person.”
Particularly a stupid, slow-learning student. By all accounts, John Duns Scotus, 15th century philosopher, had some brilliant things to say. He pioneered the idea that we had the exact same kind of goodness inside us that God did, just a lot less. Unfortunately, his followers, known as the Dunses in the century succeeding his death, were reputed to be the most stubborn, closed-minded, hair-splitting philosophizers ever to refute the existence of a chair. Mr. Scotus’ name would go down in history attached more to his pigheaded followers than to his own work.
5. Fool (n), "Silly or stupid person."
Fool started showing up in writing around 1200, riding a wave of words that flowed almost unchanged from Latin to Old French to Middle English to modern English. Now here is a joke worthy of any court jester: What do fools and blacksmith bellows have in common? Besides sharing the Latin root follis ("bag"), they’re both windbags that blow nothing but hot air. Ba dum da dum. Fool!
6. Rube (n), “An awkward unsophisticated person.”
Rube showed up around the turn of the 19th century as a slur for a gullible country boy. Its origin is similar to that of hick. Both are diminutive forms of names that were associated with country folk at the time: Rube for Reuben, Hick for Richard. A rube was just the sort of poor sap a flim-flammer might easily honeyfuggle into doling out his hard earned scratch. (See also: How to Swear Like an Old Prospector.)
7. Bum (n), “One who performs a function poorly.”
We owe the legendary German work ethic for the introduction of the word bum to mean “useless.” It’s meant “buttocks” for much longer, at least from the 13th century. But as it relates to American layabouts, the word became popular during the Civil War, when German immigrants swelled the ranks of the Yankees. The German word bummler was easily shortened to apply to any soldier not worth his ration of cornpone because he was sitting on his bum all day.
8. Barbarian (n), “Savage, vandal.”
Barbarian, if it were literally translated for modern English speakers, might be called Blahblahians. “Bar-bar” was how ancient Greeks imitated the babbling stammer of any language that wasn’t Greek. Thus barbarian came to mean the sort of lowbrow foreigners who hardly put any pornography on their pottery. Such savages.
9. Cretin (n), “A stupid, vulgar, or insensitive person.”
It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin, like spaz, is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. It comes from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was crestin, used to describe "a dwarfed and deformed idiot." Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian," was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.
10. Bung-hole (n), “Anus.”
Poor bung-hole, a fully legitimate word that just sounded so dirty that people began using it for prurient purposes as early as the 1600s. A bung is a cork, or plug. A bung-hole is something that needs to be stoppered by a cork, like a wine barrel or milk jug. You are still surrounded by legitimate bung-holes in your everyday modern life. But you probably already knew that.
Definitions in this article were sourced from The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology and The Online Etymology Dictionary.