Thursday, May 16, 2013


Etymological Origins of Words Related to Insults


Originally meaning “short thick block of wood,” related to Icelandic kumba. As a metaphor for someone’s intelligence, from the 1800s on. (Other insults regarding the literal density of one’s cranium: blockhead, thick, dense.)



Originally the name of a mechanical coupling device. R. F. Knucklehead, created in 1942, was a fictional character invented by the U.S. Army to show new recruits what not to do, à la “Goofus and Gallant.” His adventures were displayed in posters hung up around Air Force training fields.



Centuries ago in the rural mountain villages of France, many children grew up with an untreated thyroid condition that stunted their mental and physical growth. Their parents and neighbors referred to them euphemistically as “Christians." Some scholars say that the name was a call to remembrance of the humanity of these affected people, even though they were different. The word for Christian in the Alpine dialect was “crestin," which became crétin in modern French. Eventually, these isolated villages began to be discovered by the modern world. The word "cretin" was seized upon by psychologists around the turn of the century, borne away on a wave of science, used in academic papers for some years, and then dropped like a hot potato by modern psychology when it was used pejoratively too often and came to be seen as offensive. 



(Ninth century) The word “scold” — to pelt somebody with criticism — came from the skalds, a group of Icelandic and Scandinavian poets who lounged around Viking courts composing snarky epic poems. In fact, their satire was of such dangerous proportions that “skáldskapr," literally “skaldship” — poetry — was a synonym for “libel” in old Icelandic law books. (There were similarly snarky court poets in England, called scops  – which is where the word “scoff” comes from.)



Yiddish for “penis." There’s a spirited debate over where this word originated. One faction says that the word comes from the Old Polish word smok (grass-snake, dragon) and was adopted into Eastern Yiddish as a metaphor. Another faction says that it’s from the German word schmuck, which literally means “jewels," similar to the English phrase “family jewels.”



From Old French. Most likely from the phrase fils de bast, “pack-saddle child” — a child conceived upon the lumpy saddle that doubled as a bed for travelers. (Also see: the obscure word bantling, possibly from German bänkling, i.e. child conceived on a bench.)



Eight centuries ago the word had such a broad negative connotation that it was an all-purpose insult for anyone who was perceived to be careless, weak, needy, or stupid. (The French took it from the Latin – nescius, meaning ignorant, literally “not-knowing.") The word was used by each successive generation to mean something completely different — lascivious, ostentatious, slothful (1300s); scrupulous, punctilious, a dainty or picky eater (1400s); shy, not obvious or readily understood (1500s); or unimportant, trivial (1600s). To this day, it remains a good thing to say about something when you don't want anyone to know what you actually think of it.

Anna Leuchtenberger nerds out about etymology and Middle English on a regular basis, thinks in metaphors, and blogs here sometimes.

87 Comments / Post A Comment

Li'l Sebastian


Li'l Sebastian

@Li'l Sebastian This post is everything I want out of life. Etymologies forever!


@Li'l Sebastian Yup. My co-workers that sit around me always groan in that "here we go again" way whenever I start talking about the etymology of a word/expression/etc. I'll be honest - I get a liiiiitle bit of satisfaction out of that groan.


@Li'l Sebastian I love the "first use in print" part of OED definitions as well.


@Li'l Sebastian @olivebee @PistolPackingMama Speaking of the OED, have y'all read The Professor and the Madman? I mean pop-history ahoy, but it's so spine-tingly and cool and nerdy.


This is perfect <3 @t


LOVE LOVE LOVE. I'll have more etymology please!

Quinn A@twitter

@solvingaproblemlikemaria Me too! Or just more random, quirky informative posts. Like one day it's etymology, the next day it's "here's a whole bunch of things you probably didn't know about cheese" or something.

Mad Dog

"A la Goofus and Gallant" is a phrase that I just do not see enough these days!

Seriously, as a word nerd this was super, super interesting to me. Thank you.


@Mad Dog "You're like the Biblical brothers, Gallant and, um...Goofeth."


I <3 everything about this. Happily reading the OED entry on nice, adj. and adv. It goes on for a nice while.


This is amazing and I kind of want to lounge in a Viking court now.


Chump and twerp are my favorite dude-aimed insults. Schmuck just may come into rotation now that I know it means penis. Thanks, Anna!


@hallelujah Doofus and meat-head are 2 of my favorites. My mom called me meat-head when I was a kid, that and Bubba.

fondue with cheddar

@hallelujah So does putz! Also Yiddish.


Also I had an undiagnosed thyroid thing for ages and it's so weird seeing references to illneses in history that you know are pretty well understood and controlled now. It makes me want to go back in time and go all House on them. #moderndayprivilege


OH and my personal favorite Housewife --> Hussy. Here are some highlights from the OED:

3. Formerly: (in some rural districts) a woman, a lass; (hence) a strong country woman; a woman of low social status. Also: a disreputable woman of improper behaviour, or of light or worthless character; a badly-behaved, pert, or mischievous girl; a minx. Also humorous.The pejorative sense was at first mostly with qualification (light, etc.), or contextual.

And my favorite example:

1775 F. Burney Let. 24 Apr. in Early Jrnls. & Lett. (1990) II. 113 He..patted my Cheek, & genteely called me a little Hussey.


@adorable-eggplant Since no one has jumped in here, I'm just going to share more hussy quotes as I cackle quietly.

"I have seen the Queen, which gave me a hussy case out of her own hand." Scott

"Buirdly chiels, and clever hizzies." Burns (took me a while to figure that one out)


@adorable-eggplant Love it. I studied screenwriting in college, and in one of my screenplays, about budding friendship between two high-school girls, one of the girls says "hussy." And my professor, during the table read/critique, said that a high schooler would never use the word hussy, especially not in 2009. I didn't argue (because she is right, "slut" was/is way more popular), but since I always said "hussy," (as in "My mom thinks I am dressed like a hussy today"), I couldn't help but feel slightly...harumph.

Ragged But Right

@olivebee @adorable-eggplant my personal fave is 'Bloody' as in "bloody hell' which comes from 'By Our Lady. Oh oh! And 'Zounds!' which is 'God's Wounds!' Sometimes my Dad, the Original Word Nerd, will literally use the words 'God's Wounds' to indicate amazement. Yes, we are British.


@Ragged But Right Wow, I had no idea about By Our Lady! That....puts a everything in a whole new context. "By Our Lady Hell!" Heh. Lady Hell. It's a good roller derby name.

Ragged But Right

@olivebee YES IT IS. OMG.


@olivebee This reminds me of the aggravation I feel anytime I read the Mad Men forums on TV Without PIty. Everyone and her mom over there are experts on whether someone in that era would say or even know a term (and usually one that these characters are perfectly justified in using)--"piece of work" being one off the top of my head. Both my grandmas used it, and I am in my early 40s, so I am sure anyone during the Mad Men era would have too.


@Ragged But Right
"Zounds" is one of my favorites!


@Ragged But Right I have always assumed it was "bloody" like God's blood, a la Gadzooks ("God's hooks!") and 'Zounds. This is completely fascinating. Goodbye, rest of evening, I'm going to eat my chickpea cookies and read about swears in the OED.


but how are the cookies

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

@adorable-eggplant Wait, which type of cheek was it that he patted.



All of these comments are so great! I am literally bouncing in my chair. WORDS!


@Dancercise OH MY GOD. The full breakdown (pictures start to finish and so on) is over on Twitter, at the hashtag #chickpeacookies, but the short answer is that they are incredible. Really, really tasty, and not at all chick-pea-y.

So good, and significantly cheaper than buying butter and flour.


@Ragged But Right Oh, OH, Swift used "by Our Lady cold" and "bloody cold" as a sort of continuum, oh oh this is SO wonderful.


the chickpea cookies were so good

i ate them allllll

shh don't tell


@Anna_Leuchtenberger Then boy do I have another insultymology for you! In keeping with the religious theme (tip o' the hat to @Ragged But Right)

Tawdry, n. from Tawdry lace, n. : " [As to the origin of the name, it is told, originally by Bæda ( Eccl. Hist. iv. ix.), and after him by Ælfric in the Life of St. Æþelðryth, Virgin ( Ælfric's Lives of Saints, ed. Skeat, 1885, xx. ll. 49–60), that St. Audrey died of a tumour in her throat, which she considered to be a just retribution, because in her youth she had for vain show adorned her neck with manifold splendid necklaces, ‘forðan þe ic on iugoðe frætwede mine swuran mid mænigfealdum swurbeagum’." St. Audrey's Lace > 't. audrey lace. Squee.

You need an OED subscription (and/or access to a good library) to read the rest of that entry BUT IT IS SO WORTH IT.

Ragged But Right

@missupright GOD'S HOOKS! ST. AUDREY! SWIFT! I am in love with everybody. I propose marriage to you all.


@Ragged But Right I know, right? I think it might be one of my top three posts the Hairpin has ever run, just for how very comradely it feels in these comments, everybody dancing all about the good words.


@Ragged But Right You watch it! I'll have you for breach of promise if you don't follow through.


@adorable-eggplant Seeing Old English on the Hairpin is making me very happy.


@Verity I studied Old English in college. Man, it makes me happy too. Beowulf 'pin up?


@adorable-eggplant So did I; it's great. (I like the elegies more than Beowulf, though.)


@Verity Hi five! Fun things from the Exeter Book pinup? I did mostly prose stuff, but when I look back now I miss the poetry.

Queen of Pickles

@adorable-eggplant Punished for necklace vanity! Oh that is amazing.


@adorable-eggplant Sounds excellent!


@Queen of Pickles The OE saints were batshit cray to say the least.

Also, she founded a double monastery (double ivy of the 7th century).


I love "twerp." And the usefulness of "nice" is right up there with the usefulness of "wow." So much "I don't care for that" can be bundled up in a pretty easy word and sneak its way right over the heads of the people you aim it at, if you so please!


Sneaky insults, yes! They are everywhere. I feel like "cute" is one. Especially for something that might have emotional resonance to someone else.

Them: "I read your book / listened to your song / saw the wedding dress you picked out! It's so... cute!"

Me: (silent argh)


Ah yes, schmuck. As a Jew who grew up in a completely Christian area, with numerous Yiddish insults at my disposal, I always got a kick out of telling people who called someone a schmuck what the word means.

More fun Yiddish etymology: bupkes (as in, "I got bupkes out of that meeting!") means goat or horse droppings.


@olivebee Yiddish is my favorite.

fondue with cheddar

@Hellcat It is definitely the best.


@Hellcat I really love it. This is a good guide for the "goy" (heh) out there: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/the-yiddish-handbook-40-words-you-should-know/.

It's amazing how many of these words are REALLY commonly used by people of every background. Glitch, maven, klutz, schlep, schmooze, spiel, schtick.

Also, I think I am going to start using "feh!" because it just reminds me of a grumpy old man. Which aligns more with my personality than a woman in her mid-twenties.


@fondue with cheddar Farkakte is my most favorite of all. It's probably inappropriate of me but when I bust out the YIddish (which I have no idea why I even know), I tend to do so in an "old-man" voice (which is really just imitating some stereotypical sitcom character). My boyfriend and I have taken to using this voice while asking incredulous "You want I should..." rhetorical questions.

@olivebee Me too. And I am glad someone notices and shares the "old man" thing!


@Hellcat Also, here is the best place I can think of to confess that my friends and I once replace words in Misfits song titles with Yiddish terms. Astrozombies became "AstroBubbes" but I'm at a loss with the rest...

fondue with cheddar

@Hellcat I have some Jewish people in my family, but unfortunately they use very little Yiddish. I learned a lot from an old boss of mine, and farkakte was always my favorite, too. It's fun to say and it's so useful. A lot of those words have fallen out of my vocabulary since then, which is a shame.

He once berated me for not dating the guy I went to senior prom whose last name was Mensch.


@olivebee I love this! The group I was close with in college was comprised of two Jews, three Italians (myself included) and one Arabic-speaking Egyptian, so I know how to insult people in ALL the fun languages.


@cosmia Your wording reminded me of THIS

fondue with cheddar



@Hellcat Right? I made it sound like we were the premise of a late 1970s sitcom set in Brooklyn.


Regular feature please?!??!


I love etymology! more please!!!


This is delightful - thank you so much! (I am on the "family jewels" side of the schmuck debate, FWIW.)

Gen. SmedleyT.Butler

Wait, if schmuck is yiddish for penis, what language/meaning is "schlong".... admittedly I think I first heard that from Spalding Gray, who may not be exactly of the tribes..

Lisa Frank

@Gen. SmedleyT.Butler There's a belief that schmuck also meant foreskin originally, but there are no etymological sources to back that up. Schmuck is more like...'what a dick' than schlong which is more like...schlong.

fondue with cheddar

@Lisa Frank Hm...if schmuck meant foreskin, then maybe it was used to mean a goy?

Li'l Sebastian

@Gen. SmedleyT.Butler There is a lot of overlap in Yiddish words -- why have one word when you could have 8 with slightly subtle shades of meaning?


But what would be the Yiddish for "wristlet full of dicks," I really need to know so I can tattoo it on my arm for everyday reference.


@Gen. SmedleyT.Butler The German word for "snake" is "schlange" (and Yiddish and German are super similar); it really is just another word for penis! I do love the schmucke (jewelry) as the etymology of schmuck theory though--I speak German fluently, and have a father who uses Yiddish expressions all the time, so I always knew what schmuck really meant, but I never put two and two together on that one.

fondue with cheddar

I always thought knucklehead had something to do with noogies.


@fondue with cheddar That makes a lot of sense. Especially when you picture the era/generation where knucklehead was commonly used. Like Wally giving the Beav a noogie or something.

fondue with cheddar

@olivebee Exactly! I can totally imagine a kid giving his little brother a noogie whilst calling him a knucklehead.

Miss Maszkerádi

What about "nincompoop"?


@Miss Maszkerádi this might be a stretch but the thought ran through my mind the other day that it kind of sounds related to incompetent. Like, a really incompetent person couldn't even get the pronounciation of incompetent right and thus it would come out nincompoop?


@Miss Maszkerádi I dunno, but apparently it was first written down in the 1670's?!


This is the best of the best.

Daisy Razor

Wow, I always thought "cretin" came from Greeks' dislike of people from Crete. That's what my Greek husband told me and I just believed him!

Gen. SmedleyT.Butler

@lisa frank -- thanks, its good to have my literal and figurative dicks, er, in order.


The day I spent doing the etymology of swearing on Twitter I gained about seventy followers and they were the BEST KIND of followers because they were there to talk about the origin of cunts and fucks and all the baddest kind of swears. I love it so much. I honestly think it's part of the reason I'm with my boyfriend, because etymology is to both of us Just The Best Thing.

Ragged But Right

@missupright GOD'S HOOKS! ST. AUDREY! SWIFT! I am in love with everybody. I propose marriage to you all.

Ricardo Bortolon@twitter

That was a nice list.


This. Is. AWESOME.


I LOVE CHUMP. Lately I have been calling people wangs a lot because too many people are being real wangs lately. This is great, I love it


Getting to this thread a bit late, but: there is a Cretin High School in St. Paul, MN! We always used to laugh when we drove by it, and my dad (an etymology geek) would solemnly tell us that it just means "Christian"!



Graduate holla! (Although technically it's Cretin-Derham Hall, with Cretin having once been a boy's school and Derham a girl's school.)

The school is named for the first bishop of the diocese of St. Paul. He was French (which I guess isn't surprising, given the word-name origin), but the dude who founded Cretin was called Archbishop John Ireland, who was... unsurprisingly Irish. He also founded STU and his sister, who was a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, founded St. Kate's and Derham Hall and sneakily built a beautiful chapel on the campus blah blah blah /local history.


This was, objectively speaking, the best. Yay for etymology forever!


This is so awesome! More fun etymology, please!

I have lost access to the OED and it makes me sad.


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