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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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Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

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The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

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