Knowing and understanding the stories behind strange or amusing insults can be very illuminating. Here are the unexpected origins of 12 amusing insults.
Insults are usually no laughing matter—there's nothing funny about actually hurting someone's feelings, after all. Some insults, however, are so overall pathetic they're downright amusing to hear, especially in contexts where they are used sarcastically, ironically, or lovingly. Other insults are so light or superficial that they're hardly insults at all—but, of course, it all depends on context.
Our perception of insults is also shaped by their history (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse). So, in honor of those light-hearted folks out there who're not so easily offended, here are the interesting and unexpected origins of 12 otherwise amusing insults.
Latin had a word for windbags: follis. This word made its way into Old French as fol, and eventually it reached English as fool. It first appeared in English records in the Middle Ages, around the 1200s, and, as an extension by analogy of its original meaning, it has come to refer to "empty-headed" people who blow nothing but hot air.
The first recorded usage of the word dates to the 16th century, in a ballad called ‘Simon The Old Kinge’ composed some time before 1575. Originally spelled "puncked," the termed meant "female prostitute" back then. Not long after, Shakespeare used the word in Measure for Measure, written around 1603-04, with that early meaning. Eventually, however, the usage became far more specific, referring almost exclusively to young male prostitutes.
In Ancient Greece, barbaros meant exactly the opposite of polites, or "citizen." The Greeks used the term to refer to any people who didn't speak Greek, thus emphasizing they were different in culture and customs. Allegedly, ancient Greeks imitated the speech of other languages with the sounds "bar-bar," which is how they supposedly heard gibberish—much like English speakers use "blah-blah" today. So, the word "barbaros" was simply an extension of that. Then the Romans adopted the term barbarus as an insult to foreigners. From there it became barbarien in Old French, and finally barbarian in English.
Though this particular insult may sound relatively harmless now, its origins are pretty awful. The word comes from crestin, an 18th century Swiss French term that originally meant "Christian." Crestin was later used to label a particular type of dwarfism, known as cretinism—caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism. People back in the day were exceptionally mean to those who had this condition, so it's believed that the label was used to remind would-be jerks that "cretins" were God's children too. Unfortunately, that didn't stick, and the term crestin soon became synonymous with "a dwarfed and deformed idiot." Over the centuries it retained its pejorative sense, but now it's applied mostly to refer to vulgar and insensitive people.
So, this insult can be a little tricky to trace back to its origins. One version of the story has German immigrants who joined the Yankees during the Civil War use the word bummler to apply to any soldier not worth his rations (because he was sitting on his "bum" all day—which gave the term its connotation of laziness). The word "bum" meaning buttocks dates at least back to the 13th century. Yet others point out the insult might simply come from the word bummer, to mean someone who constantly disappoints.
The Scottish had a term for "hound" that was kind of offensive: bratchet, and its abbreviation might have made its way into Early Modern English, but this isn't certain. What we do know, though, is that by the 16th century English-speakers were using 'brat' to mean "beggar's child," a term that could've also been influenced by Old English's 'bratt', meaning "rag" or "cloak." At any rate, from referring to little beggar kids, the term eventually came to be applied to an annoying child regardless of class.
Back in the days when steam engines were all the rage, there were some specialized towns along railroad stops that had water towers to refill the vehicles' tanks. The "water stops" had big boilers with chains hanging down their sides, which needed men to "jerk" them to get the water going. Though some of these towns grew and thrived as the years went by, others stalled, eventually becoming useless as anything but "jerk towns," inhabited by equally useless "jerks."
This one's particularly good. Dunce refers to any slow-witted person, particularly a student—and for good reason. You see, back in the Middle Ages there was a very famous philosopher called John Duns Scotus, who was famous for his hair-splitting philosophy. His followers, known as the Dunses, are said to have been much worse, however—famed across the world as the most stubborn and closed-minded people you could possibly find. So, because of them, Duns Scotus' name lived on as a synonym of ultimately bad students.
At the turn of the 19th century, Reubens had a bad reputation as rather unsophisticated country folk. The name was popular in the countryside, apparently, and their nickname soon became a generalized term to talk about simple and rudimentary people. A bit unfair, to be honest.
This word has been used since at least the 13th century, with Wycliffe's Bible of 1382 translating Leviticus xxii, 24 as "Al beeste, that ... kitt and taken awey the ballokes is, ye shulen not offre to the Lord ..."
The word probably comes from the Teutonic word for ball, which Old English called 'beallucas'. Its meaning is pretty straightforward: "testicles." Curiously, from the 17th to 19th century "bollocks" or "ballocks" was slang for clergyman, who were famous for talking nonsense during their sermons. Eventually, then, the term came to mean just that.
Old French used the term bougre to mean "heretic." The word came from Latin's 'Bulgarus', meaning "Bulgarian," particularly one who belonged to the Orthodox Church and was therefore considered a heretic by the Catholics. From Old French it migrated to Middle Dutch, then to Middle English, and finally to Modern English in its current form. In the 16th century, though, it acquired its sense of 'sodomite' by associating heretics with forbidden sexual practices, and it finally became an insult by the 18th century.
The term for 'moon' in Latin was luna, which became lunaticus in late Latin, and lunatique in Old French. People around the 13th century used to believe that changes in the moon could cause temporary insanity, so they started calling those whom they thought were thus affected "lunatics," literally meaning "moon-sick." Romantic, huh?
So, now you know. The origins of some of your (probably) favorite insults—which should give them a whole new meaning to you now, right?
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