Insults these days can sometimes feel so drab. While once in a while someone will get out a good zinger, too often people rely on F-words, A-words and other rather average swear words. You could dip your toes into insults in other languages like Spanish and French, but those likely won’t be as satisfying because your insultee won’t understand them. Why not explore more of English? English insults from the past, that is.
It’s hard to say why, but insults from the past feel more cutting than modern ones. Hearing a character in Veep curse someone out will never come close to the impact of Dame Maggie Smith with a single line in Downton Abbey. You might not be able to reach her level of greatness, but you can certainly look to the past for your own inspiration.
Come with us, then, as we travel through time and explore our expletive-filled past. We picked the ten best insults for you to start sprinkling into your casual speech.
Villain, I have done thy mother.
Meaning: It means you’ve, uh…done their…well, you get it
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 “yo 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. Which is exactly 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’re casually strolling through Elizabethan England and get 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 (American). That and a delicious grid-shaped batter, of course.
Meaning: A vain and conceited man
Travelling through the millennia and seeing both the best and worst of mankind will humble any time traveler. It will make your think less about yourself 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 middle of the 16th century, is a version of “cockscomb” (the crest on the head of a cockerel/rooster). And because it’s named after a male bird, coxcomb is generally only applied to men. 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 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 to use in casual conversation, as playful as it might sound. Today, “fop” — which itself dates back to the 15th century — has a definition closer to a diffent insult on this list: “a man who is excessively vain and concerned about his dress, appearance and manners.” You know, a proper coxcomb.
Meaning: A fat person
Insulting someone for their weight is highly discouraged, but the social significance of being slightly rotund in the 19th century — when this word came about — was very different than it would be today. Did you know that mid-Victorian working class men and women ate between 3000 – 4000 calories per day? That’s between 50 to 100 percent more than today’s recommended intake. Greedy old Victorians.
But wait. That doesn’t mean everyone was a jelly-belly. People were much more physically active two centuries ago than they are today, so being overweight was rare among the working class.
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 of this term is obvious, but this is such a great turn of phrase we couldn’t resist including it.
First used as an insult in politics in the late 17th century, grumbletonian 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.
Meaning: A stupid or foolish person
To get straight to the modern version of this word, a dilberry maker is basically an 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 “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: Seems pretty self-explanatory
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 in the 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.