10 Insulting Words You Don’t Know

by Robin Bloor on May 31, 2009

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

That’s what we used to chant as kids when we got into name calling contests in the school yard. Of course, it’s untrue and it’s disingenuous. It implies that the name callers are pursuing a stupid strategy when, in truth, the right insult is deeply wounding.

Consider, for example, Jean Harlow. At dinner with Dame Margot Asquith, the wife of British prime minister Herbert Asquith, she kept pronouncing Dame Asquith’s name mar-got rather than mar-go, as it should be pronounced. Eventually Dame Asquith corrected her with the immortal words “No Jean, the T is silent, as in Harlow.” Being insulted brutally is bad enough, but being insulted famously is far worse.

Nevertheless, Jean Harlow escaped lightly when compared to Lord Castlereagh, a despised British politician, who was held responsible for the massacre at St. Peter’s Fields, where British cavalry charged into a crowd of 80,000 protesters, killing 15 and wounding hundreds. Castlereagh resigned in the wake of this, lived the remainder of his life a broken man and eventually committed suicide. But even in death he was reviled. Byron wrote the only epitaph for Lord Castlereagh that anyone ever remembers. It’s this:

Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler scene than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh.
Stop traveller, and piss.

This four line poem distills the essence of insult. A good insult makes no apology for itself. It is dressed to kill and performs accordingly. English is rich with insulting words and there can be no surprise that many have lapsed into disuse as other, newer words have edged them out of common usage. Nevertheless some of them can surely be revived if enough of us employ them whenever there is an opening. Here are ten:

1. Jementous. An effective means of insulting someone is to accuse them of polluting the air, as in “People fell at his feet, but only after they’d smelt his breath.” If the occasion warrants it, you might try; “Your aftershave’s distinctive, do I detect a hint of hircismus?” Hircismus has two related meanings; offensive armpit odor or the smell of a goat. Jementous is similar. It’s an adjective which means smelling of horse urine and it may catch people unawares, because it doesn’t sound like an insult (at least not to me).

As few of us spend much time in the company of horses you may no longer appreciate the distinctive nature of this insult, but if you’ve read The Tempest by Shakespeare, you’ll have no doubt of the putative unpleasantness of the odor. In The Tempest, Trinculo addresses Caliban (the oafish monster) with the words; “Monster, I do smell all horse-piss; at which my nose is in great indignation.” Caliban was obviously jementous.

2. Slubberdegullion. This word is superior to jementous from the onamatapoeic perspective. It really does sound like a damning insult and it is. A slubberdegullion is a slobbering foul individual, a worthless sloven, a pigpen, a jeeter, a tramp, an uncouth slob, a disgusting draggletail, a torpid and tawdry tatterdemalion. This is someone who lives in the gutter and whose only function on this planet is to serve as a warning to others. The origin of slubberdegullion is uncompromising; slubber from the Dutch means to daub or smear and degullion is a corruption of the Old French de goalon meaning a sloven. A slubberdegullion is a slob.

3. Helminth: It’s no compliment to call someone a slubberdegullion, but it is quite a mild insult when compared to something like helminth. A helminth is an intestinal worm. It’s the same as the difference (in the US) between calling someone a doofus and calling them a dipshit. Or if you prefer a UK example, its the difference between a plonker and a complete fuckwit. As an epithet, helminth can be classified with cockroach, slug, leech, dung beetle and other lowlife that we have no love for. However, the word has superior onamatapoeic qualities to slubberdegullion and it bests all other lowlife nouns I’ve run into. It’s a truly great insult – so much so that I recommend that you find someone you truly dislike and deploy it immediately.

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