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42 Old English Insults

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Besides being the greatest writer in the history of the English language, William Shakespeare was the master of the pithy put-down. So the nervous servant who tells Macbeth his castle is under attack is dismissed as a “cream-faced loon.” Oswald in King Lear isn’t just a useless idiot, he’s a “whoreson zed,” an “unnecessary letter.” Lear’s ungrateful daughter Goneril is “a plague-sore,” an “embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.” And when Falstaff doubts something Mistress Quickly has said in Henry IV: Part 1, he claims, “there’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.” (And there’s a good chance he didn’t intend “stewed prune” to mean dried fruit.) But you don’t have to rely just on Shakespeare to spice up your vocabulary. Next time someone winds you up or you need to win an argument in fine style, why not try dropping one of these old-fashioned insults into your conversation? 

1. ABYDOCOMIST

Abydos was a city in Ancient Egypt whose inhabitants, according to one 19th century dictionary, “were famous for inventing slanders and boasting of them.” Whether that’s true or not, the name Abydos is the origin of abydocomist—a liar who brags about their lies. 

2. BEDSWERVER

An adulterer. Another of Shakespeare’s inventions that became popular in Victorian slang.

3. BESPAWLER

To bespawl means to spit or dribble. A bespawler is a slobbering person, who spits when he talks. 

4. BOBOLYNE

An old Tudor English word for a fool. Coined by the 15th-16th century poet John Skelton (who was one of Henry VIII’s schoolteachers). 

5. CUMBERWORLD

Also called a cumberground—someone who is so useless, they just serve to take up space. 

6. DALCOP

Cop is an old word for the head, making a dalcop (literally a “dull-head”) a particularly stupid person. You can also be a harecop, or a “hare-brained” person. 

7. DEW-BEATER

An 18th century word for an especially large shoe, and consequently a clumsy or awkward person.

8. DORBEL

As well as being another name for a nincompoop, a dorbel is a petty, nit-picking teacher. It’s derived from the name of an old French scholar named Nicolas d’Orbellis, who was well known as a supporter of the much-derided philosopher John Duns Scotus (whose followers were the original “dunces”).

9. DRATE-POKE

An old English dialect word for someone who drawls or speaks indistinctly.

10. DRIGGLE-DRAGGLE

An untidy woman. 

11. FOPDOODLE

An insignificant or foolish man.

12. FUSTYLUGS 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term for “a woman of gross or corpulent habit” is derived from fusty, in the sense of something that’s gone off or gone stale. 

13. FUSTILARIAN

Another of Shakespeare’s best put-downs, coined in Henry IV, Part 2: "Away, you scullion! You rampallion! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe," Falstaff exclaims. If not just a variation of fustylugs, he likely meant it to mean someone who stubbornly wastes time on worthless things. 

14. GILLIE-WET-FOOT

An old Scots word for a swindling businessman, or someone who gets into debt and then flees.

15. GNASHGAB

An 18th century northern English word for someone who only ever seems to complain. 

16. GOBERMOUCH

An old Irish word for a nosy, prying person who likes to interfere in other people’s business. 

17. GOWPENFUL-O’-ANYTHING 

A gowpen is the bowl formed by cupping your hands together, while a gowpenful-o’-anything is “a contemptuous term applied to one who is a medley of everything absurd,” according to the English Dialect Dictionary

18. KLAZOMANIAC

Someone who only seems able to speak by shouting. 

19. LEASING-MONGER

A leasing is an old word for an untruth or falsehood, making a leasing-monger or a leasing-maker a habitual liar. 

20. LOITER-SACK 

This is a 17th century term for a slacker. An idling, lazy good-for-nothing. Literally, someone who seems to spend all day in bed.

21. LUBBERWORT

In the 16th century, lubberwort was the name of an imaginary plant that was supposed to cause sluggishness or stupidity, and ultimately came to be used as a nickname for a lethargic, fuzzy-minded person.

22. MUCK-SPOUT

A dialect word for someone who not only talks a lot, but who seems to constantly swear. 

23. MUMBLECRUST

Derived from the name of a stock character in medieval theatrical farces, a mumblecrust is a toothless beggar. 

24. QUISBY

In Victorian English, doing quisby meant shirking from work or lazing around. A quisby was someone who did just that.

25. RAGGABRASH

A disorganized or grubby person. 

26. RAKEFIRE

A visitor who outstays his or her welcome. Originally, someone who stays so late the dying coals in the fireplace would need to be raked over just to keep it burning. 

27. ROIDERBANKS

Someone who lives beyond their means, or seems to spend extravagantly.

28. SADDLE-GOOSE

Saddling geese is a proverbially pointless exercise, so anyone who wastes their time doing it—namely, a saddle-goose—must be an imbecile. 

29. SCOBBERLOTCHER

Probably derived from scopperloit, an old English dialect word for a vacation or a break from work, a scobberlotcher is someone who never works hard. 

30. SKELPIE-LIMMER

A badly-behaved child. Coined by the Scottish poet Robert Burns from the old Scots word skelpie, meaning “misbehaving” or “deserving punishment.” 

31. SMELL-FEAST

Someone who turns up uninvited at a meal or party and expects to be fed.

32. SMELLFUNGUS

When Laurence Sterne (author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy) met the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett (author of The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle) in Italy in 1764, he was amazed by how critical Smollett was of all the places he had visited. Smollett returned home and published his Travels Through France and Italy in 1766, and in response Sterne published his Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy two years later. Part-novel, part-travelogue, Sterne’s book featured a grumblingly quarrelsome character called Smelfungus, who was modeled on Smollett. The name soon came to be used of any buzz-killing faultfinder—an in particular someone who always finds fault in the places they visit.

33. SNOUTBAND

Someone who constantly interrupts a conversation, typically only to contradict or correct someone else.

34. SORNER 

Sorning was the 16th century equivalent of mooching or sponging, and so a sorner is someone who unappreciatively lives off other people.

35. STAMPCRAB

A heavy-footed, clumsy person. 

36. STYMPHALIST

In Greek mythology, one of The Twelve Labors of Hercules was to destroy the Stymphalian birds, a flock of monstrous, man-eating birds with metal beaks and feathers, who produced a stinking and highly toxic guano. A Stymphalist is someone who smells just as unpleasant. 

37. TALLOWCATCH

Another of Shakespeare’s inventions directed at the gross, womanizing knight Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1. It’s probably derived from “tallow ketch,” literally “a barrel of fat.”

38. TRIPTAKER

A finicky, fault-finding pedant. 

39. WANDOUGHT

A weak and ineffectual man. (Wandoughty is an old word for impotence. Say no more.) 

40. WHIFFLE-WHAFFLE

An indecisive, time-wasting ditherer. 

41. YALDSON

A 15th century word literally meaning “the son of a prostitute.” 

42. ZOILIST

Zoilus was a Greek grammarian who became known as one of the most vitriolic critics of Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Consequently, a zoilist is an overly-critical and judgmental nitpicker.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Something Something Soup Something
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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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