The Origins of 9 Great British Insults

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For as long as people have been speaking the English language, they’ve been deploying it to poke fun at one another. Let's dig a little deeper into the grab bag of insults that language has bequeathed us throughout history, and find out where those terms come from.

1. Wazzock

Wazzock was a particularly prevalent—and particularly loutish—insult in the 1990s. At the time, "lad culture" ran throughout British music and television, and wazzock, a North-England accented contraction of the sarcastic wiseacre (a know-it-all) became a powerful tool to shoot people down in an argument.

2. Lummox

Though the etymology of lummox is heavily disputed, one thing is for certain: It came from East Anglia, the coastal outcrop of Britain above London. There, around 1825, someone threw out the word as an insult, and it stuck, becoming a typically British go-to term. Some linguists believe it comes from the word lummock, which typified a lummox: it means a clumsy oaf.

3. Skiver

Skivers and shirkers are one and the same. Someone who manages to duck under any responsibility and loaf around, doing very little, is a skiver. The origins of this particular insult are contested: some think it’s from an Old Norse wordskifa—meaning “slice,” whereby the worker slices off as much work as possible.

4. Minger

Often hurled at the opposite sex, to call someone a minger is to say they are objectively unattractive. Though etymologists struggle to agree where the word came from, it seems likely that it stems from the Old Scots word meng, meaning “sh**.” We didn’t say it was pretty.

5. Nincompoop

For such a colloquial word, nincompoop actually has a very learned past. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of England’s first proper dictionary, claims the word comes from the Latin phrase non compos mentis (“not of right mind”), and was originally a legal term.

6. Pillock

As words are used more regularly, the laziness of pronunciation can often warp them slightly. So it was with pillock. Originally pillicock (a Norwegian slang word for penis), the word has since been condensed to plain old pillock—though its meaning remains.

7. Clod hopper

According to the brilliant Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, dating back to 1811 and compiled by Captain Francis Grose, a clod hopper refers to a country farmer or ploughman—with the implication nowadays that you’re slow witted and bumbling.

8. Dunaker

Grose’s Dictionary of vulgarities is a rich seam of overlooked insults. In the 200 years since it was published, there have been several terms that have fallen out of favor. One of them is dunaker, a common thief of cows and calves.

9. Git

By calling someone a git, you’re invoking the old Scots word get, which means "bastard." When it came down south of the border, it lost its harsh vowel sound and became something softer, albeit with the required spikiness in.

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May 15, 2013 - 7:45am
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