9 Sweet Old Words for Bitter Tastes and Taunts

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Whether you’re enjoying the sharp taste of an IPA or disliking some nasty words from a colleague, it’s hard not to talk about bitterness. But we could all use a few new—or old—terms for this all-too-common concept. So let’s dig into the history of English to find a few words fit to describe barbs and rhubarbs.

1. STOMACHOUS

Have you ever spoken with bile and gall? If so, you’ll understand why stomachous is also a word describing bitterness, especially bitter words and feelings. This is an angry word to describe spiteful outbursts that come when you’ve had a bellyful of something. In The Faerie Queen, Edmond Spencer used the term, describing those who, “With sterne lookes, and stomachous disdaine, Gaue signes of grudge and discontentment vaine." You can also say someone is “stomachously angry,” a level of anger requiring a handful of antacids.

2. WORMWOOD

Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is the patron plant of bitterness, which has made wormwood synonymous with the concept. Since at least the 1500s, that has included wormwood being used as an adjective. Shakespeare used the term in this way: “Thy secret pleasure turnes to open shame ... Thy sugred tongue to bitter wormwood tast.” George Parsons Lathrop reinforced this meaning in 1895 via the bitterness of regret, describing “the wormwood memories of wrongs in the past.” Unsurprisingly, some beers are brewed with wormwood to add bitterness, like Storm Wormwood IPA.

3. BRINISH

The earliest uses of brinish are waterlogged, referring to saltiness of the sea. The term then shifted to tears and then more general bitterness. Samuel Hieron used it in his 1620 book Works: “These brinish inuectiues are vnsauory” [sic]. Nothing can ruin your day quite like brinish invective.

4. CRABBED

Crabby is a popular word for moods that are, shall we say, not reminiscent of puppies and rainbows. Crabbed has likewise been used to describe people in ways that aren’t flattering to the crab community. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological note is amusing: “The primary reference was to the crooked or wayward gait of the crustacean, and the contradictory, perverse, and fractious disposition which this expressed.” This led to a variety of meanings running the gamut from perverse to combative to irritable—so bitter fits right in. Since the 1400s, crabbed has sometimes referred to tastes and other things that are closer to a triple IPA than a chocolate cookie. OED examples of “crabbed supper” and “crabbed entertainment” both sound displeasing to the stomach.

5. ABSINTHIAN

This word, found in English since the 1600s, is mainly a literary term suggesting wormwood in its early uses; later, it started applying to the green alcohol that is bitter and often illegal. A 1635 couplet from poet Thomas Randolph sounds like sound dietary advice: “Best Physique then, when gall with sugar meets, Tempring Absinthian bitternesse with sweets.” A later use, from 1882 by poet Egbert Martin, makes a more spiritual recommendation: “Prayer can empty life's absinthian gall, Rest and peace and quiet wait its call.”

6. RODENT

Now here’s a bizarre, and rare, twist on a common word. Though we’re most familiar with rodents as the nasty rats digging through your garbage and the adorable hamsters spinning in a wheel, this term has occasionally been an adjective. Though later uses apply to corrosiveness and literal rodents, the earliest known example refers to bitterness. A medical example from 1633, referring to the bodily humors, shows how this odd term was used: “They offend in quality, being too hot, or too cold, or too sharp, and rodent.”

7. NIPPIT

The first uses of nippit, found in the 1500s, refer to scarcity, which may be because this is a variation of nipped. In the 1800s, the term spread to miserliness and narrow-mindedness, and from there to more general bitterness. OED examples describe “nippit words” and people who are “mean or nippit.”

8. SNELL

This marvelous word first referred to physical and mental quickness. A “snell remark” showed a quick wit. But that keenness spread to a different sort of sharpness: the severity or crispness of bitter weather. An 1822 use from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine uses this sense: “The wintry air is snell and keen.”

9. TETRICAL

The Latinate term for bitterness and harshness of various sorts appears in José Francisco de Isla's 1772 book The History of the Famous Preacher Friar Gerund de Campazas, describing some non-sweet folks: "Some so tetrical, so cross-grained, and of so corrupt a taste." A similar meaning is shared by the also-rare terms tetric, tetricity, tetricious, and tetritude. Thankfully, there is no relation to the sweet game of Tetris.

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.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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