I’ve been bingeing on the Shetland mysteries by Ann Cleeves and have finished them all. The novels are set in the Shetland islands to the extreme north of the UK. One of the many enjoyable features is the realistic dialogue, replete with dialect words and British idioms. I encountered several words, some of them insults, that sent me to the dictionary.
In researching insults in general, I came to realize that English provides an astounding number of ways to show contempt for our fellow creatures—too many for a single post.
I shall begin with thirty words used to insult the intelligence.
Compounds involving the head
One way is to form a compound with head, brain, skull, or wit:
NOTE: The definition of wit referenced in these compounds is “The faculty of thinking and reasoning in general.”
Words for mental conditions
Some words used to call a person stupid or foolish were or, in some contexts still are, medical or legal terms. The Ngram viewer shows all of these especially offensive insults understandably declining—until the 2000s, when they began climbing. The word idiot shows an especially dramatic spurt as we enter the age of incivility at the highest levels.
idiot: A person so profoundly disabled in mental function or intellect as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct; specifically a person permanently so affected, as distinguished from one with a temporary severe mental illness.
imbecile: (Latin imbecillus “weak, feeble, delicate, fragile, ineffective, lacking intellectual or moral strength”) Of a person: mentally weak or deficient; lacking in intelligence or intellectual ability; stupid, foolish, idiotic. Sometimes used with the medical meaning of “suffering from mental retardation, typically of a moderate or severe degree,” but now largely disused and often considered offensive.
cretin: An individual whose mental and physical development has been impaired by a deficiency of thyroid hormone during intrauterine or early life.
moron: (Psychology) A person with mild mental retardation (specifically with an IQ of between 50 and 70).
Words beginning with D
Several words used to denote a stupid person begin with the letter d. Curiously, the utterances Duh and Doh, which are vocalizations intended to illustrate stupidity, also begin with D.
NOTE: the last three in the list probably derive from the adjective dumb, which in a non-insulting context refers to one who lacks the ability to speak.
Also beginning with the letter d is the word dunce. An eponym, this word was first hurled as an insult by theologians in the sixteenth century. Two major philosophical schools were the Thomist (based on writings of Thomas Aquinas) and the Scotist (based on the writings of John Duns Scotus). In ridiculing what they saw as hair-splitting, the Thomists ridiculed the Scotists by calling them “Dunces” (i.e., followers of Duns Scotus).
Simpleton is an example of something positive being turned into a fault. The suffix –ton turns the adjective simple into a noun, meaning “An unintelligent, ignorant, or gullible person; a fool.” Simple has several senses, one of which, dating from 1300, is “characterized by humility; unpretentious, humble, modest, unassuming.” Now it means, “stupid, foolish, feeble-minded, having a cognitive impairment or mental disability.” Possibly another good word gone bad, ninny may be a shortened form of the word innocent.
The word ignoramus is Latin for “we do not know.” It began as a legal term: “the endorsement formerly made by a Grand Jury upon a bill or indictment presented to them, when they considered the evidence for the prosecution insufficient to warrant the case going to a petty jury.” In general use it means, “an ignorant person.”
Flake and twit seem to combine stupidity with erratic or unconventional behavior.
flake: (a back-formation of the adjective flaky) a person who is liable to act in an eccentric or crazy manner, a screwball, a foolish, slow-witted, or unreliable person.
twit: a stupid, silly, or annoying person; a fool, an idiot.
bozo: a foolish or incompetent person.
I used to think that the term bozo had something to do with Bozo as a clown name.
The term bozo was used by US speakers in the 1920s in the sense of person, the way we use guy and dude. Here is an example from 1921: “Joe is the bozo which I write all them letters to from France.” Bozo the clown was created as a storytelling persona at Capitol Records in 1940.
More insults in a future post, including the ones I found in the Cleeves book.