42 Old English Insults

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getty images

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.

23 Notoriously Unrhymable Words (That Actually Have Rhymes)

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iStock.com/MeXaHuK

You’ll no doubt have heard the old fact that nothing rhymes with orange. But in fact, the English surname Gorringe—as in Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, captain of the USS Gettysburg—rhymes with orange. And so does Blorenge, the name of a hill in south Wales. But even if proper nouns like surnames and place names are excluded, that still leaves sporange, an obscure name for the sporangium, which is the part of a plant that produces its spores. So although it might all depend on your accent, on how obscure a word you’re willing to accept, and on precisely where the stress falls in the word (because sporange can either rhyme with orange or be pronounced “spuh-ranj”), it seems there actually is a rhyme for orange.

In fact, despite often finding their way onto lists of notoriously unrhymable words, all of the words listed here do have rhymes in English—just so long as bizarre dialect words and obscure scientific jargon are allowed.

1. Acrid rhymes with epacrid (in some pronunciations), a name for any plant of the genus Epacris, most of which are found in Australia.

2. Angst partially rhymes with both phalanxed, meaning “arranged in rows,” and thanksed, an old word meaning “given thanks to.”

3. Beige is pronounced so that it sounds more like the first syllable of Asia than it does similarly spelled words like age, gauge, stage, and rage. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of a rhyme; there’s also greige, the name for the dull color of undyed fabric.

4. Bulb rhymes with culb, an obscure 17th century word for a retort or a barbed reply.

5. Chaos rhymes with naos, a name for the innermost part of a Greek temple, and speos, an Egyptian tomb built into a cave.

6. Circle rhymes with hurkle, an old dialect word meaning “to pull your arms and legs in towards your body,” as well as both heterocercal and homocercal, two zoological terms describing the tails of fish that are either asymmetrical or symmetrical, respectively.

7. Circus has a homophone, cercus, which is the name of a bodily appendage found on certain insects, and so rhymes with cysticercus, another name for a tapeworm larva. If that’s too obscure, why not try rhyming it with murcous—a 17th century word meaning “lacking a thumb.”

8. Concierge is a direct borrowing from French, so the number of English words it can rhyme with is already limited. But there is demi-vierge, another French loanword used as an old-fashioned name for a unchaste young woman—or, as Merriam-Webster explains, “a girl … who engages in lewd or suggestive speech and usually promiscuous petting but retains her virginity.” It literally means “half-virgin.”

9. Dunce rhymes with punce, a dialect word for flattened, pounded meat, or for a sudden hard kick, among other definitions.

10. False rhymes with valse, which is an alternative name for a waltz, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

11. Film rhymes with pilm, an old southern English word for dust or fine powder.

12. Filth rhymes with both spilth, which is the quantity lost when a drink is spilled (or the spilling itself), and tilth, meaning hard work or labor.

13. Gouge rhymes with scrouge, which means “to crowd or crush together.” In 19th century college slang, a scrouge was also a long, dull, or arduous lesson or piece of work.

14. Gulf rhymes with both sulf, which is another name for toadflax plants, and culf, an old southwest English word for the loose feathers that come out of pillows and cushions.

15. Music rhymes with both ageusic and dysgeusia, both of which are medical words describing a total lack of or minor malfunction in a person’s sense of taste, respectively.

16. Purple rhymes with hirple, meaning “to limp” or “walk awkwardly,” and curple, an old Scots word for a leather strap that goes beneath the tail of a horse to secure its saddle (it also more broadly means "buttocks").

17. Replenish rhymes with both displenish, which means “to remove furniture,” and Rhenish, meaning “relating to the river Rhine.”

18. Rhythm rhymes with the English place name Lytham as well as smitham, an old word for fine malt dust or powdered lead ore.

19. Silver, after purple and orange, is the third of three English colors supposedly without rhymes. But there is chilver, an old dialect word for a ewe lamb.

20. Wasp rhymes with both cosp, a hasp for fastening a door or gate, and knosp, an architectural ornament resembling the bud of a tree.

21. Width rhymes with sidth, an English dialect word variously used for the length, depth, or breadth of something—or literally the length of one side.

22. Window rhymes with tamarindo, a Spanish-American drink made of boiled and sweetened tamarind fruit.

23. Women rhymes with both timon, an old word for the rudder of a ship, and dimmen, meaning “to grow dim” or “to set like the sun.” Woman, however, has no rhyme at all. (Apparently.)

A version of this list first ran in 2015.

100 Words Turning 100 This Year

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YouTube

In 1919, just a few months after World War I came to an end, the phrase World War 2 made its debut. The Oxford English Dictionary described it as "a reference to an imagined future war arising out of the social upheaval consequent upon the First World War." Twenty years later, the event wouldn't seem so imaginary.

Join editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she journeys into the past to dig up a whopping 100 words that are turning 100 this year in our all-new Mental Floss List Show. Whip out your OED and read along as you check out the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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