10 Insults From The Past That Deserve A Comeback: English for Time Travelers

What rude words, insults and phrases might you hear on your trip through time? Here are some of our favorite and most interesting put-downs of yesteryear.
July 25, 2017
10 Insults From The Past That Deserve A Comeback: English for Time Travelers

Are you ready for your time traveling adventure? Packed enough 21st-century clean underwear and completed all the device safety checks? Don’t forget your favorite modern bathroom products. You may be going back to a time when people were more casual with maintaining good hygiene, but that doesn’t mean you should fester in your own filth. Time traveling can be sweaty work, you know.

Anyway, before you enter the date on your time travel machine, have you considered that it might not always be the trouble-free, smooth journey through the space-time continuum you imagined? Exploring the centuries gone by might not be all sunshine and (War of the) roses. You could find yourself in a tricky situation or two and in all kinds of peril. This could include:

  • Pirates stealing the rare crystals which power your time traveling device
  • Arriving by materializing into thin air hundreds of meters above ground
  • Letting slip that the Earth revolves around the sun and being put on trial for heresy

In hairy moments, you might also bump into the not-so-friendly folk of years gone by. And they could hurl some not-so-friendly words your way. So, to prepare you, we visit some of our favorite colorful insults of old. You may just hear a few of them on your voyage. Oh, and for the comedic purposes of this article, we’ll assume you can only travel back in time and not into the future, OK?

Villain, I have done thy mother.

Meaning: Erm… you can figure it out

Where better to start than with the king of the witty put-downs: Shakespeare. This line, which he wrote for the play Titus Andronicus, proves that “your mama jokes” are no modern playground invention.

That’s about 450 years that our poor mothers have been the butt of cruel jokes. They deserve better, so remember to calls yours when you get back from your journey.


Meaning: A fool

Ever tried to saddle a goose? No, exactly. That’s the point of this 19th-century slur: that you are as foolish as somebody who’d try something as pointless as putting a saddle on a goose.

Although, if it were possible to saddle a goose, imagine the possibilities. You could enjoy a day out at the geese racing, really surprise your enemies by charging them on goose-back and invent a whole new equestrian-inspired Olympic sport.


Meaning: A time-waster

If you are accused of being a whiffle-waffle, you’ll have to resist the urge to jump up and proclaim “I don’t waste time, I travel through time!” You might enjoy a proud little chuckle to yourself, but you’ll be asked some serious questions after.

First appearing in the 16th century, its meaning still makes sense if we look at today’s definitions of “whiffle and “waffle.” “Whiffle” means to make a soft sound or slight movement of air. “Waffle” means something trivial (British) or failing to make up one’s mind (US). That and a delicious grid-shaped batter, of course.


Meaning: A vain and conceited man

Of course, traversing through the millennia and seeing both the best and worst of mankind will humble any male time traveler. It will make him think less about himself and more about the meaning of life, how we treat each other and not to waste time on petty details.

Or not, perhaps.

Coxcomb, which dates back to the mid 16th century, is a version of “cockscomb” (the crest on the head of a cockerel/rooster). A cockscomb is also the hat worn by a court jester.


Meaning: An untidy/dirty woman

The period in which this word was used — the 16th century — wasn’t exactly known for high benchmarks of cleanliness. Which means that this must have been a term used to describe a woman as untidy and/or unclean by the standards of the day. Which brings all kinds of images and possibilities to mind. So let’s just leave that thought there, shall we?

Today, this has survived in some form as “draggle,” which means “to make something dirty or wet, typically by trailing it through mud or water.”


Meaning: An insignificant fool

Thought this list would only contain one word meaning “a fool”? You saddle-goose!

This dates from the early 1800s when it was considered very rude, as playful as it might sound. Today, “fop” — which itself dates back to the 15th century — has a great definition: “a man who is excessively vain and concerned about his dress, appearance, and manners.” You know, a proper coxcomb.


Meaning: A fat person

Late 19th century. Did you know that mid-Victorian working class men and women ate between 3000 – 4000 calories per day? That’s between 50% – 100% more than today’s recommended intake. Greedy old Victorians. But wait. That doesn’t mean everyone was a jelly-belly. This is because they were much more physically active than we are today, so being overweight and obese was rare among the working class.

But not everyone was working class in the 19th century, of course. So if you find yourself dining among aristocrats, dukes, royalty and the like of old, you’ll likely see a few jelly-bellies at the table.


Meaning: Someone who constantly grumbles and complains

The meaning is obvious, but this is such a great word we couldn’t resist including it.

First used as an insult in politics in the late 17th century, it evokes a mental picture of a town called Grumbleton. Or would that be Grumbleville? Either way, we imagine it would be a difficult place to live. Citizens moaning about the weather even when it’s sunny, complaints about the trains which are never late and a lot of fuss about nothing. Literally.

Dilberry maker

Meaning: A stupid or foolish person

Or, to get straight to the modern version of this word, an “ass/asshole.”

We get this definition from looking up ‘dilberry maker’ in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose (which is a real eye-catching book title). In that dictionary, “dilberry maker” is referred to as “the fundament” which, today, is defined as — any guesses? — “a person’s buttocks or anus.” Crude, but it gets the point across.

You have teeth so crooked you could eat corn on the cob through a picket fence.

Meaning: None needed!

They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh? Nowadays, you’ll struggle to find such wonderful and descriptive insults like this one from the Old West, USA (late 19th century).

We wonder (but will never know) if this came about through a real-life incident. Maybe, for example, there was a Joe from the Old West who didn’t have the best of teeth. And maybe, just maybe, he once tried to eat corn on the cob through a picket fence. Why? Erm, because he was too tired from gun slinging practice to walk around? OK, we’re over-analyzing it. Let’s just enjoy it instead for all its detail and uniqueness.

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Author Headshot
Kyri Savva
Kyri was born in London, UK. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany and has worked for Babbel since April 2016. He enjoys writing, writing puns, halloumi and listening to Prince. Sometimes all at the same time. Follow him on Twitter.
Kyri was born in London, UK. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany and has worked for Babbel since April 2016. He enjoys writing, writing puns, halloumi and listening to Prince. Sometimes all at the same time. Follow him on Twitter.

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