CLOSE
Original image
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan

The Origins of 9 Great British Insults

Original image
ThinkStock/Bryan Dugan

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.

Original image
14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
Original image

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, 'Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression' or does it mean, 'Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default'? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contronyms”—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
*
2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
*
3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)
*
4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.
*
5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
*
6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).
*
7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning ‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’ “trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make ready.’ Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: ‘to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?
*
8. Cleave can be cleaved into two “homographs,” words with different origins that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), ‘ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”
*
9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.
*
10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in "running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in "holding fast." If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.
*
11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
*
12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”
*
13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
*
14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including “auto-antonym,” “antagonym,” “enantiodrome,” “self-antonym,” “antilogy” and “Janus word” (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

Update: Here are 11 more words that are their own opposites.

Original image
Getty Images
27 Cowboy Slang Terms for Things You Eat and Drink
Original image
Getty Images

If your bread wallet is empty and you need to line the flue, knight the ribbons and mosey to a beanery. Your cookie-pusher will know what you mean when you order any of these 27 cowboy food and drink items.

1. Bear Sign: Doughnuts
*
2. Overland trout: Bacon
*
3. Blue John: Skimmed milk
*
4. Boggy-top: A pie with no top crust
*
5. Cackleberries: Eggs
*
6. Charlie Taylor: A butter substitute made of sorghum or syrup mixed with fat. It wasn't good, and apparently neither was Charlie Taylor, who was terrible enough to lend his name to the unpopular trail staple.

*
7. Hen-fruit Stir and Long Sweetenin': Pancakes and molasses
*
8. Horse Thief Special / Spotted Pup: Rice or tapioca pudding with raisins
*
9. Hot Rock / Sinker / Doughgods: Biscuits
*
10. Huckdummy: Biscuits with raisins
*
11. Love Apples: Canned tomatoes
*
12. Music Roots: Sweet potatoes
*
13. Mysteries: Sausage of any variety, so-called because that's what they're made of
*
14. Bee-sweetenin’: Honey
*
15. Pecos Strawberries / Mexican Strawberries / Whistle Berries: Beans
*
16. Roastineer: To "roast an ear" of corn over the fire while still in its husk
*
17. Salt Horse: Corned beef
*
18. Saltwater Vegetables: Oysters or clams
*
19. Sipper / Texas Butter: Gravy
*
20. Skunk eggs: Onion
*
21. Son-of-a-gun Stew (or if there are no womenfolk present, Son-of-a-bitch Stew): Stew made of whatever is available and the organs of a recently-slaughtered calf. So-called because the son-of-a-gun young cattle can't keep up on the trail.
*
22. Wasp Nest: Bread

And don’t forget to order a drink!

23. Six-shooter Skink / Float a Horseshoe / Arbuckle's / Brown Gargle / Jamoka: Coffee
*
24. Belly Wash / Soda Pop / Black Water: Really weak coffee
*
25. John Barleycorn / Purge / Hop Juice: Beer
*
26. Nose Paint / Pop Skull / Prairie Dew / Rebel Soldier / Red Eye / Snake Pizen / Tarantula Juice / Tongue Oil / Tonsil Paint / Tornado Juice / Busthead / Bottled Courage / Family Disturbance / Gut Warmer / Kansas Sheep Dip: Whiskey
*
27. And a shot of whiskey with a beer chaser is a boilermaker and his helper.

* * *

We'd need a book to list them all -- what's your favorite cowboy food slang?

Collected from Legends of America's Old West Slang Dictionary and Westopedia: The Language and Lore of Real America by Win Blevins

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios