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Friday, January 25, 2008


The tricky business of defining national insults

In the same way that Yiddish has many words for clumsy or stupid people, English - English-English, rather than American-English - provides us with a charmingly broad and subtly-shaded range of insults for people who are tiresomely incompetent and lacking in self-awareness. The distinctions can be hard to draw, but I'm going to have a go, just for fun.

A very important word. 'Wank' meaning masturbate, the basic inference is obvious, but 'wanker' suggests more dislike than most of its equivalents. A wanker is someone who thinks he's coming across well, and actually is coming across badly; it can also imply that he is untrustworthy, needlessly unpleasant and/or arrogant. A wanker isn't inherently aggressive, like a jerk, though he might act that way on occasion; when he offends people, it's more because he's self-absorbed and/or selfish. Unlike a jerk, he isn't purposefully mean. That would imply being interested in people other than as an audience, or a source of whatever else he needs, which a wanker usually isn't. A wanker is also someone full of himself, or pretentious. Generally, a wanker is insensitive to social nuance and has too high an opinion of his own charm, skill, intelligence, wit, strength or worth.

'Wanker' is a flexible word, and in the right circumstances could fill in for almost any other insult, but the basic meaning is of someone who never realises how bad he looks, because he is, as it were, only in dialogue with himself.

A slightly softer insult than 'wanker', though the meaning is basically the same. A tosser is silly rather than nasty; someone either hopelessly incompetent or hopelessly pretentious.

Again, same basic definition, but a plonker is just incompetent. Can be used with amiable contempt, but a plonker is somebody no one thinks well of; a clown that you might laugh at but wouldn't laugh with.

From Cockney rhyming slang, 'Berkley Hunt', 'berk' is less obscene than its etymology suggests. A berk is more or less a fool, someone with no sense who's an awkward blot on the social landscape.

Meaning 'backside', as in 'pratfall', a prat is a fool as well, but a more transitory state; you can, for instance, make a prat of yourself, or act like a prat, without being a prat full-time. A prat is someone who ought to be very embarrassed about how stupid he's being. Whether or not he actually will be embarrassed depends on whether he's acting like a prat, or just is a prat.

A mug is someone stupid enough to be taken advantage of; the word can apply to either gender. Not quite the same thing as a mark or a gull; a mug would make an easy mark or be easy to gull, but it's more a general trait than the result of any single situation. A mug can garner sympathy because they're so put-upon, as in the case of someone whose family always unloads the hard work onto him or her; you don't exactly respect a mug, but you can like and pity one. Referring to oneself as 'muggins' when complaining about having to do all the hard work is an offshoot of this, as in, 'You guys were all out partying while muggins here had to clean up before the landlord came!'

A nasty person that nobody likes. 'Git' is generally not a name you would call someone directly without adding an adjective - 'You git!' isn't something you usually hear; more common is 'You stupid git!' or 'You lying git!'. When addressing the git directly, the word is a kind of participle noun, used to add a load of disapproval to the more specific descriptive phrase. When referring to the git in the third person, it can be a more general term of disapproval, as in 'That git over there just called me a wanker!'

A tit is generally somebody who's made a fool of themselves, as in 'I felt a right tit' or 'Look at him, hopping around like a tit'. It's much easier to be like a tit than to be a tit; to be a full-time tit, you have to make an idiot of yourself pretty consistently.

Toe rag
A cheating, disreputable scumbag of no trustworthiness, character or virtue whatsoever. A toe rag is someone who betrays his friends.

Pronounced 'dick-ed', even in an educated accent, a dickhead is an idiot who's either pointlessly disagreeable or has amazingly bad judgement. A dickhead is the kind of person who picks a fight with you for no reason.

A muppet is someone who's made a mistake or done a bad job. It can be used affectionately, as in 'You left your coat behind, you muppet!'; it can also be used to criticise someone's abilities, as in 'I don't know what muppet built this for you, but I'm gonna have to charge you six hundred quid to fix it.'

Someone of limited intelligence. 'Pillock' also carries the implication of helplessness: you wouldn't expect a pillock to stand up for himself very well.

An unsalvageably foolish person who's foolish all the time. 'Wally' is a fairly affectionate or soft term of abuse, but implies an outstanding lack of common sense. A famous example is the Sun newspaper, in an article about Prince Philip making some alarmingly racist jokes in China, calling him 'The Great Wally Of China'.

It strikes me that a key element of English insults is the idea of self-awareness: a great many of the insults denote someone who, were he aware how he was coming across, wouldn't be acting so stupidly.

The kind of insults a nation creates are an unusual insight into its general character: you wouldn't bother to invent an insult for something that nobody does or nobody minds. Whether this means that, say, England has more wankers and America has more jerks, or that England notices wankers more and America notices jerks more, I couldn't really say. (As an interesting side-note, many English people feel that 'arsehole' is a stronger insult than 'asshole', even though the only real difference is in pronunciation. Curious, huh?)

It would be interesting to hear opinions. Does anyone have a useful national insult? Or a speculation as to why insults seem to cluster around key concepts? Does your culture have insults that seem particularly specific to it?

plonker was an old slang term for condom
Do Brits use dufus, loser, asswipe, and dipshit? My friends and I used "fartknocker" a lot when I was a kid, but that might have been an Intermountain West regionalism.
I asked my boyfriend what types of insults are common in Vietnamese. Interestingly, he said that most insults, at least when you are addressing the insultee directly, are directed at the person's parents.
Loser, yes, but the other ones no, not usually, unless they're quoting American slang. 'Arsehole' is probably the closest to 'asswipe', but I'm not sure it has the same connotation.

Interesting about the parents thing. Do any of them imply 'badly brought up', or are they just intended to annoy and parents are a sacred subject?
Aw, you missed out my favourite! I personally love "numpty", even though I hardly ever use it. I love the euphony of it, the way it sounds like what it is. Most of the ones on your list, if I didn't know what they meant and had to guess, I wouldn't have a clue. But numpty could never be anything but an insult. It's great.

I do love "muppet" as well, though. Like numpty, it's just a very satisfying word to say, regardless of meaning, which is perhaps another reason why I like them both.

Love & hugs,

PS: just about to post this, and the random collection of letters it makes you stick in to check you're not a virus or something has come up as "smemje". Isn't that great? It's a perfect illustration of what I was saying about numpty: it just sounds like an insult, right away. You muppet! You numpty! You smemje! I vote that smemje be made a new official insult, it's at least as fun to say as numpty and more mystifying. The correct pronounciation, BTW, is "smem-gee", with the "e" sounded. It's just not as fun otherwise.
What a beautiful tutorial for those of us across the pond. I understand my British books much better now. Thanks!

My friend coined the term ass-hat, which cracks me up every time.
Doofus: Clueless, generally. Sometimes pluraled as doofii, by geekier types.

Speaking of, 'geek' used to be an insult and now seems to be sort of a badge of honor in some circles, generally meaning someone who takes an intense interest in a certain topic and knows a great deal about it. The topic in question can't be that cool though--you can be a computer geek or even a classical literature geek, but you can't really get away with being, say, a Beatles geek.

Weirdly enough, the word 'geek' used to mean the guy at the carnival who did really gross things like biting the heads off of live chickens. How exactly that transited to the current definition is quite beyond me.

'Nerd', however, isn't quite as cool as being a geek. Being a geek implies that you're at least good at something, be it HTML or Latin declension, though your ability to fit into regular society might be slightly impaired by it. Being a nerd implies that you're socially inept AND incompetent on top of that. Or, at best, that the things you're competent at are generally useless things like having memorized the THAC0 chart for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons.

Wow, I really went off on a tangent there. Maybe because I just got back from a science fiction convention this weekend and saw lots of examples of both types.
The Vietnamese insults do imply badly brought up, and not just at the insultee, but the insultee's entire family.
Horribly late to the party, but whatever.

The Dutch language has some pretty 'interesting' insults as well. Basically, they're all about horrible diseases. If you really, really don't like a person you might call him a "kankerlijer" (lit: cancersufferer).

Popular diseases included typhoid, the plague, tuberculosis and cancer.

However, the use of disease to insult somebody has declined with only cancer really staying and AIDS making a careful appearance on the insult stage. Plague and tuberculosis have lost their edge, becoming very mild swearwords at best (like "goshdarnit"). Typhoid still enjoys some popularity, but I think it's because it has a pretty harsh sound in Dutch.

I blame this decline on the advancements in medicine, by the way. Science is just ruining the language!
Agree with the dutch insults but you forgot the cholera insult ("klerelijer", "kolere") which is more ubiquitous than the reference to cancer. Personally I would think that the reference to cancer is still not used as much as the reference to typhoid ("tiefuslijer"), the former is still seen as a pretty harsh statement. Then of course there are the insults generally referring to the genitals ("lul", "klootzak") all can be used as a single noun. With women ofcourse there are always the insults related to the oldest profession ("hoer" or even worse "stoephoer") that often are used in comjunction with 'vuile', 'vieze' or 'smerige' (all these mean 'dirty'). Apparently - according to a court decision- 'homo' (=pufter) is now officially an insult if used against cops.
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