12 Words For The Insufferably Vain


Vanity is more visible than ever in these selfie-saturated days, but being a preening peacock or conceited coxcomb has never been out of style. There are many older, out-of-use words for people who can only be pried away from a mirror with the jaws of life. So please use these words next time you have to describe a self-obsessed huff-snuff.


The Oxford English Dictionary defines this rhyming word as “a conceited fellow who gives himself airs and is quick to take offence; a braggart, hector.” The idea is that the person is huffing and snuffing in an exaggerated fashion with their nose in the air, outraged by any affront to their precious person. Like all reduplicative words—including namby-pamby and higgledy-piggledyhuff-snuff is awesome.


A glass-gazing ninnyhammer is always looking in a mirror. Shakespeare used the term in damning fashion in King Lear, describing: “A whorson glassegazing superfinicall rogue.” Ouch.


This word has had several meanings, mostly related to the weather, but in the late 1800s airish joined words such as blowhard and bloviate in the gaseous lexicon of invective. Mark Twain used the term in an 1874 letter, writing “I shall be as uppish & airish as any third-rate actor whose name is not made loud enough in the bills.” That’s about as uppy and airy as it gets.


The image of a nose in the air is hard to beat when it comes conceit, but this type of conceit is specific: It has to do with an overestimation of one’s intelligence. But this word has some other meanings that are less insulting. A nose-wise person sometimes simply has a quick wit. Other times they have a superior sense of smell.


No less than Shakespeare used this term—in Hamlet—via the memorable noun phrase “a very very pajock.” This word for a peacock or popinjay isn’t used much, but it’s usually an allusion to Shakespeare. Back in 1954, C. S. Lewis asked a very good question: “Have we no more gravity among us than to be so chafed by the taunt of a pajock?”


A Scottish word, the jaunty term vaunty has been around since the 1700s, describing vain varlets and boastful buffoons. Vaunty springs from an out-of-use sense of vaunt as a verb meaning to brag, and it’s related to vaunted.


Though skipjack sounds like an unreliable lumberjack, it has a slightly less rugged meaning that is worth quoting the OED in full: “A pert shallow-brained fellow; a puppy, a whipper-snapper; a conceited fop or dandy.” (Fun fact: Puppy has sometimes been a word for an attention hog. Novelist Frances Burney used the term in a 1775 letter: “He is conceited, self-sufficient, and puppyish.”)


This is a term from the U.S. south for someone who has gotten not only too big for their britches, but too big for the whole britches store, figuratively. The biggity are big-headed.


Speaking of major-league melons, Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists this vivid variation of the idiom “have a big head.” This massive slang dictionary includes an 1886 use in The Policeman’s Lantern by James Greenwood: “Strange how some men get their skulls swelled when they get on the force.”


This term plays on older meaning of side as referring to arrogance and general full-of-yourself-ness. People would say an arrogant jerk was putting on side. From there, you could say the vain or puffed-up are sidey.


This sibling of whipper-snapper has a slightly different sense. Both words are dismissive of youths, but snipper-snapper also has a suggestion of conceitedness, as seen in a definition in an 1854 glossary compiled by A.E. Baker: “Snipper-snapper, a small, insignificant, effeminate, self-conceited young man.” This term is apparently a little older than whipper-snapper, but it hasn’t fared as well in the Darwinian lexical race.

A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts

In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.


The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.


According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.


History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.


Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.


The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."


Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”


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