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.

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

The Definition of Museum Could Be Changing

The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
The Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
roman_slavik/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve always casually defined museum as “a place to see art or historical objects,” you’re not necessarily wrong. But the International Council of Museums (ICOM) has a more specific, official guideline that defines a museum as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates, and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.”

ICOM’s 40,000 members have been adhering to this definition for almost 50 years to represent more than 20,000 museums around the world. Now, The Art Newspaper reports, some members want to change it.

On July 22, the organization’s executive board convened in Paris and composed a new definition that Danish curator Jette Sandahl believes better suits the demands of “cultural democracy.” By this updated description, a museum must “acknowledg[e] and addres[s] the conflicts and challenges of the present,” “work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world,” and “contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

The proposal immediately elicited harsh reactions from a number of other members of the museum community, who felt the text was too ideological and vague. François Mairesse, a professor at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle and the chair of the International Committee of Museology, even resigned from the revisory commission—led by Sandahl—earlier this summer when he realized the new definition wasn’t, by his standards, really a definition. “This is not a definition but a statement of fashionable values, much too complicated and partly aberrant,” he told The Art Newspaper. “It would be disastrous to impose only one type of museum.”

The current plan is for ICOM members to vote on the definition at the general assembly on September 7 in Kyoto, Japan, but 24 national branches and five museums’ international committees have petitioned to postpone the vote—they’d like some time to create their own definition for museum and present it as a counter-proposal.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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