Insults have been around since humans could communicate with one-another. Many have come and gone, but others have evolved over time. Read up on the obscure history of 10 PG-rated slang terms below and share with your friends.
1. Punk, “A Worthless Person”
Punk has had a long career as one of the insults in the English language. Shakespeare used it as an especially dirty word for a prostitute back in 1602. Eventually it came to mean young male prostitutes, then evolved by the 1920s to mean young, inexperienced boy. Inexperienced soon became good-for-nothing and criminal.
2. Brat, “A Badly Behaved Child”
The worst kind of kids in the olden days weren’t loud and spoiled. They were really, really poor. Brat as a slang term dates from the 1500s in England, and meant beggar’s child. Bratt is also an old English word meaning ragged garment or cloak. So, brats often wore bratts, affirming that they were in fact, brats.
3. Jerk, “A Tedious and Ineffectual Person”
Steam engines needed to be refilled with water quite often, so water-stops were built all along the railroad lines. These were just water towers, with hanging chains that the boiler man would jerk to start the water flowing. Towns sprang up around many of these water-stops. Some thrived, and some were just jerk-water towns, populated with jerks.
4. Dunce, “Slow-witted or Stupid Person”
Particularly a stupid, slow-learning student. By all accounts, John Duns Scotus, 15th century philosopher, had some brilliant things to say. He pioneered the idea that we had the exact same kind of goodness inside us that God did, just a lot less. Unfortunately, his followers, known as the Dunses in the century succeeding his death, were reputed to be the most stubborn, closed-minded philosophizers. Mr. Scotus’ name would go down in history attached more to his pigheaded followers than to his own work.
5. Fool, “Silly or Stupid Person”
Fool started showing up in writing around 1200, riding a wave of words that flowed almost unchanged from Latin to Old French to Middle English to modern English. Now here are insults worthy of any court jester: What do fools and blacksmith bellows have in common? Besides sharing the Latin root follis (“bag”), they’re both windbags that blow nothing but hot air.
6. Rube, “An Awkward Unsophisticated Person”
Rube showed up around the turn of the 19th century as a slur for a gullible country boy; similar to hick. Both are diminutive forms of names that were associated with country folk at the time: Rube for Reuben, Hick for Richard. A rube was just the sort of poor sap a flim-flammer might easily honeyfuggle into doling out his hard earned scratch. If you catch my meaning.
7. Bum, “One Who Performs a Function Poorly”
We owe the legendary German work ethic for the introduction of the word bum to mean useless. It’s meant buttocks for much longer, at least from the 13th century. The word became popular during the American Civil War, when German immigrants swelled the ranks of the Yankees. The German word bummler was easily shortened to apply to any soldier not worth his ration of cornpone because he was sitting on his bum all day.
8. Barbarian, “Savage, Vandal”
Barbarian, if it were literally translated for modern English speakers, might be called Blahblahians. Bar-bar was how ancient Greeks imitated the babbling stammer of any language that wasn’t Greek. Thus barbarian came to mean the sort of lowbrow foreigners who hardly put any pornography on their pottery.
9. Cretin, “A Stupid, Vulgar, or Insensitive Person”
It’s ironic that cretin is used to describe an insensitive person, because its origin is terribly insensitive. Cretin (like spaz) is an insult that evolved from a very real and very dreadful medical condition. The word wascrestin, used to describe a dwarfed and deformed idiot. Cretinism was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. Etymologists believe the word’s root, the Latin “Christian,” was to be a reminder that cretins were God’s children, too.
10. Bung-hole, “Anus”
Poor bung-hole; a fully legitimate word that just sounded so dirty that people began using it for prurient purposes as early as the 1600s. A bung is a cork, or plug. A bung-hole is something that needs to be stoppered by a cork, like a wine barrel or milk jug.
Daniel is an Art Director and Graphic Designer with over a decade of experience in advertising and marketing in the Greater Toronto Area.