Proper Putdowns

Originally published in the Toronto Star on February 8, 2005.  Good morning, and what do you angry pixiewant, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings?

Laxatives are in Aisle Five, bon apetit, you mossy-bowelled bleeder…have a runny day. Ahoy there, you vacuous, toffee-nosed, malodorous pervert …and welcome to Wal-Mart. Please watch your step…your warts are leaking. Cart or basket? What was that? Stop the presses, Shakespeare has spoken, ingenious pairing of the “f” word with “you”, bravo, you cancerous lump of nose-pick. Painkillers are in Aisle Eight, have a superb overdose.  Abuse is dead. Instead we have boorish, boring vulgarity – two or three one-size-fits-all sewer swear words.

The same old ho-hum cussing, what’s sauce for the broken fingernail is sauce for the thirty-car train wreck. Where’s the panache? Why not exhume the verbal treasures of the English muck mines? From the playful to the truly vile, let’s doff the swears and curse with style. I’m I.D.’s pretentious, long-winded international correspondent and THIS IS CNN! Brought to you by the letter “I”: for your belligerent pleasure – right now! – a whirlwind tour of Planet Insult. You smelly bag of mongrel corn plop. You sock-sniffing guttersnipe. You reek of sauerkraut and leprosy.

General Purpose Vituperation

Apply liberally to the putrid at heart. These pearls of put-down, courtesy of (DDC), can be fired at will. “Blackguard” (pronounced “blaggard”, c. 1400’s), meaning “a foul mouthed, utterly disgusting scoundrel”, was at one point the height of opprobrium. It was sorely missed this past November. “Busybody” isn’t bad, but “quidnunc”, from the Latin for “what now?” is better, meaning a noisy gossip. “Brat” is good, but the three-pronged “jackanapes” (“a domesticated ape or monkey”, “an annoying child”, “an impudent fellow”) is marvellous when used upon “one who is unimportant but cheeky and presumptuous”. Like you, for instance.

“Toady” is word-perfect for the warty suck-up after your job: a sycophant. A servile parasite. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary (OED), the word has its slimy roots in “toad-eater”; a toad-eater (c. 1629) was the assistant of a medical charlatan who ate or pretended to eat a toad (which at the time was believed poisonous) in order to display his master’s sham skill in expelling the poison. I like “suilline” (“of the hog family”), and “Babbitt” isn’t bad either (“a self-satisfied, complacent person chiefly interested in business, middle-class ideals”), but “poltroon” takes the cake (“a base coward”). The next two are from the wonderful site The Toad’s Words, an etymology collection. “Libertine” is perfect for the cunning curmudgeon: it has a noble, Roman-imperial air to it, but it just means “a debauched, licentious or immoral man”. “Curmudgeon”, by the way, has evolved into a poke that is rather on the cute side of cantankerous, but firing it at “a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man” may chip at least some of the enamel off those muddy dentures.

Insults by Shakespeare

These are so plentiful and so delightful that they could easily fill an entire book…namely Shakespeare’s Insults by Wayne F. Hill and Cynthia J. Ottchen. All of the following are shamelessly lifted from that groovy tome: unlick’d bear-whelp, quicksand of deceit, scurvy politician, king of codpieces, rump-fed ronyon, roastmeat for worms, tallow-face, milksop.

Gentleman’s Philippic

Misers and dullards, ugly mugs and atheists, idiots and fatsoes – all of these gents have their own special, horrible pages in the mighty Oxford. An ample chunk of insults for men harp on femininity: the much-maligned girlie-man and his preening cousins. It’s an interesting case of algebra exploding in one’s face: a = b (man = “woman” = insult), b = c (woman = “loose” = insult), but a ≠ c (man = “loose” ≠ insult). A small taste: nancy-boy, pantywaist, pretty-boy, mamma’s boy, pansy, poofter, nelly, wuss, and of course, the best Schwarzeneggerism since “I’LL BE BOCK”, “girlie-man”.

“Girlie-man” was popularized in old Saturday Night Live skit in which Hans and Franz, two Schwarzeneggeresque meatheads, jeer at people whose biceps are not preposterously huge. The Gubernator got in on the joke by using “girlie-men” to attack California legislators over the state’s budget, and despite wide censure of the term as homophobic and misogynist, he gave an encore performance at the most recent Republican National Convention, declaring “And to those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don’t be economic girlie men.” Auch.

Variations of “girlie man” for about as long as it been undesirable to be female – that is, roughly forever. The ancient Greeks, for instance, might have taunted each other with “androgynos” (formed from “andros”, meaning “man” and “gyne”, meaning “woman”). Indeed, says online blog Laudator Tempois Acti in an August 2004 entry, in Menander’s Aspis, a Thracian slave taunts his Phyrgian counterpart, “Girlie man (androgynos). We Thracians alone are real men, a masculine bunch.”


Woman Abuse

Insults for women are as profuse as Vulcan ears at a calculator convention, and almost as dull. Most confine militantly to one of two themes – promiscuity and nagging. Of the former persuasion are slattern, jezebel, trollop, tramp, strumpet, quiff and quean. All of these words essentially mean “a cheap woman”, but “slattern” has the added connotation of “slovenly” and “quean” (from the Old English cwen) implies impudence or ill-behaviour. Shrew, virago, harridan, scold, termagant, fishwife, and battle-axe all describe a strident or nagging female. Of these, “termagant” is probably the most obscure, and the most fascinating. According to the Toad’s Words, Termagant was a violent, riotous (and fictional) Muslim deity in medieval European “morality plays”; because he was typically dressed in long flowing robes, he was often mistaken for a woman! Hence the present definition of the word: a “brawling woman, a shrew” (c. 1659).


Insults That Weren’t

“Tramp” only assumed its current connotation of “prostitute” around 1922. For over 600 years, the word was a benign one, associated simply with the act of wandering, sometimes aimlessly. “Tramp’s” first recorded usage was in 1388, Middle Low German trampen, meaning “to stamp”; it took until roughly the 1630’s for the full evolution into “vagabond”. By the late nineteenth century, says the OED, a “tramp” was a “steamship which takes cargo wherever it can be traded”, and from here the word’s quick tumble into the gutter was perhaps inescapable. In New Zealand and a few other locales, however, “tramping” remains common slang for romping about the countryside on foot.


“Shrew” is a word slightly out of vogue these days, sustained in the vernacular largely though the popularity of Shakespeare’s tumultuous tale of a “hell-cat” subdued, The Taming of The Shrew. Its familiar meaning, “a peevish, malignant, clamorous, spiteful, vexatious, turbulent woman” (c. 1386, says the OED!), is traditionally said to derive from its lesser-known incarnation, found on DDC, as a “small, insect-nibbling mammal of the family Soricidae”. A rather cuddly-looking little animal, this shrew, or shrewmouse, was held in superstitious dread on account of its (false) reputation for a venomous bite.


Insults That Aren’t

It’s official: at long last, “pimp” is no longer an insult. Reuters reports that when ran a photograph of famed stuntman Evel Knievel at the 2001 Action Sports and Music Awards along with the caption “You’re never too old to be a pimp”, a seething Kneivel sued, alleging “public disgrace and scandal”. His case was shot down by a three-judge panel court in San Francisco, which ruled that “pimp” was likely intended as a teen-slang compliment, and therefore did not constitute defamation. Knievel furiously responded, “What good is law in the United States of America if five or six goddamn bimbos are going to rule against it?” A good try, Evel, but methinks that since all three of the judges were male, the correct term would probably be “mimbo” (male bimbo, one of the many phrases coined on Seinfeld). Thank you, come again.


“Queer” is a queer one indeed, perfectly benign until the 1920’s, when its first use as a pejorative for an effeminate or gay male was recorded, says the OED. The word made its debut in English some time after 1508, taking on dual meanings of “oblique, perverse, odd” (from the Middle Low German “dwer”, meaning same) and “thwart, ruin, spoil” (from “thwerr”, meaning “diagonal” – quite literally “not straight”, as pointed out on “Queer” re-emerged in the 1990’s gay community as a term of social and political empowerment, and though some continue to abhor the word, the mainstream popularity of “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” has essentially driven “queer” full circle.


Six parting shots

I like “nebbish” because it rhymes so beautifully with “rubbish” and because it conveys loserness like no other word – a poor soul and a sad sack, all rolled into one, says’s “Odd Words”. Straight from the dictionary: bête noire: a detested, dreaded person, your very own pet hate. “Dastard”: a sneaking, malicious coward. Infomercials getting you down? Then you’re not going to believe the deal we have for you! Only ten easy instalments of the English alphabet: mountebank (“a boastful, unscrupulous pretender; a flamboyant charlatan”). Meek, timid and unassertive? You may just be a “milquetoast”. And last but not least, for the utterly revolting, truly nasty piece of work – try “miscreant” – an “evil villain”.


Elderberries: The Last Word. Yes, Elderberries.

As the acknowledged kings of vicious effrontery, Monty Python gets the last word: “Go and boil your bottom, sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you…you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

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