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15 Old Words for the Duplicitous That We Should Bring Back

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Duplicitous is a word with an appropriately tricky origin. It was originally a legal term for including two pleas in one, which is a no-no. Much like that origin, many terms for the Iago-like and Loki-ish have been lost in the mists of time (or maybe stolen by some rat-brained, two-hearted turncoat). Consider reviving these words the next time you encounter anyone twistical.

1. AMBIDEXTROUS

This word is usually a compliment, or at least a neutral description of an impressive talent: being equally skilled with both hands. Maybe because the left hand has often been considered disreputable or even Satanic, the word for this ability took a turn. Laurence Sterne’s A Political Romance, published in 1968, gives this word some slimy ilk, describing “A little, dirty, pimping, pettifogging, ambidextrous fellow.”

2. TWISTICAL

This term, around since the early 1800s, can be literal or figurative. A winding road can be called twistical, but so can a lying scumbag. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definition is deadpan and wonderful: “… not straight or plain in character; morally or mentally tortuous.” An example from David Humphreys’ 1815 book The Yankey in England describes a common problem in sketchy men: “In his dealings with t'other sex, he is a leetle twistical.”

3., 4., 5., AND 6. TWO-HEARTED, DOUBLE-HEARTED, TWO HEARTS AND DOUBLE HEART

Two-faced is a common term for the untrustworthy (and the inspiration for a Batman villain), and the number two is part of many similar terms. An OED example from some 1649 religious literature goes on a guitar solo of dualities: “Unlesse we have two faces, two tongues, two understandings, two judgements, two consciences, two hearts, two pair of hands, two pair of leggs, two purses, which every honest man hath not, we cannot see how it may be done.”

7. DOUBLE-HEADED

This term is usually literal, describing trains, snakes, and monsters with two noggins. But it’s sometimes been part of the lexicon of duplicity, much like double-hearted.

8. HAVE AS MANY FACES AS A CHURCHYARD CLOCK

The wonderful Green’s Dictionary of Slang (GDoS) records this expression, which ups the ante from two-centric terms for the untrustworthy, suggesting that a rogue or rascal has, like a church clock, no less than four faces. It was recorded in a 1925 collection of sailor slang as a word for “an unreliable man.”

9. GAMMONACIOUS

This word for describing anything duplicitous stems from the many sketchy meanings of gammon. Gammon and patter is criminal cant or slang. Gammon and spinach is horsefeathers. Various other meanings involve tricking, wheedling, or seducing someone, so if someone’s being twistical, they’re gammonacious.

10., 11., AND 12. TWI-FACED, TWIFOLD, AND DOUBLE

Many meanings of twifold simply refer to things that are two-pronged but basically innocent. Other senses refer to double-dealing diabolical denizens of Deceit-ville. Since the 1300s, double all on its own has had more than a numerical meaning, conveying two-facedness and base treachery. In 1715, Gilbert Burnet’s History of My Own Time described a dude who was “very double, or very inconstant.” In 1866’s Felix Holt, the Radical, George Elliot wrote about a tricky situation: “To act with doubleness towards a man whose own conduct was double.” This kind of meaning informs double agent.

13. SWIKEL

With roots in Old German and Old Norse, this is one of the least familiar words for the ever-familiar topic of duplicity. You don’t hear about swikel words, deeds, and creeps anymore, which is too bad. There was a real ring to variations such as swikelness and swikeldom.

14. RAT-BRAINED

Rats are among the least trusted animals, along with the stool pigeon and guttersnake. Since the first half of the 1900s, rat-brained has been a term for the sneaky and prevaricating, as seen in an example from William F. Fowler’s The Battle of 1933, published the following year: “The rat brained, snake-eyed rascals who conceal their rascality under the dignified expression ‘financial genius.’” 

15. HOOKEM-SNIVEY

This oddball adjective from the Dictionary of American Regional English is used in a 1938 Atlantic Monthly describing “hookem-snivey capers with public money.”

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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