It is strange that one of the areas where the Americans and British have most diverged in their use of English is in the way they insult one another. As a result, this post was getting too long, filled to the rafters as it was with rude words and put-downs from both sides of the pond. I have therefore split it into instalments. Welcome to Part One.
Insults scan be very unpleasant and damaging when used in a bullying context, but they can also be lighthearted and even competitive. In the UK, insults can often be used affectionately as well as offensively. In my day job, I always saw a steady stream of insults between staff as a positive sign that everyone was at ease with one another. When the insults stopped, it was a certain sign that something had upset the delicate chemistry that bound the team together. That, I suspect, is a peculiarly British phenomenon. My experience of workplaces in the USA is that employees are more respectful than their British counterparts, but I’m not convinced that this is necessarily a good thing.
The insults traded in our office were naturally at the milder end of the scale. Some insults would not be tolerated in the workplace under any circumstances. But in between those extremes, it all gets rather more difficult. One person’s humorous quip is another’s unforgivable vulgarity. So, if you are very young, a delicate flower, or just not sure about where you sit between those extremes, stop here, because some of what follows is likely to be unsuitable for you – and the further you go, the worse it is likely to get. Please understand though, this is meant to be an exploration of the linguistic differences between American and British insults, not an endorsement of using those insults.
A Little History
The vocabulary of the insult is one of the most fluid – changing constantly to reflect the society of the day. Back in Victorian times, the British had the most wonderful list of insults. Imagine being called a Flapdoodle1 or Fopdoodle,2 a Foozler3 or even a Hornswoggler,4. If you were overweight, you might be called a Jollocks5. Policemen were known as Mutton Shunters6 and people of low morals would be referred to as Muck Snipes. Somehow, you would know that these words were from time of Charles Dickens without needing to be told.
Going back even further, William Shakespeare was a lover of insults and he invented many of his own – Tallowcatch meaning gross or overweight7 and Fustilarian meaning someone who stubbornly wastes time on pointless tasks8 to name just a couple.
Even now, these insults seem to belong to their time. And our current vocabulary will belong to ours.
With this rich heritage, it is little wonder that the British still excel at insulting one another. Strange then, that Americans regard the British as terribly polite and proper. In my experience, Americans insult one another less often yet their insult list is every bit as long as ours, perhaps longer. What we both say has changed however. Nowadays, sexual and anatomical references are commonplace in the insult list on both sides of the Atlantic and yet most of these words are relatively recent additions to the dictionary. In 100 years, or less, they will probably have disappeared and been replaced.
Categories of Insult
Desmond Morris, the zoologist and ethologist,9 suggested there were ten categories of insult. That is too many for this gentle stroll around the subject so I’m going to divide insults into just four groups (which inevitably overlap) to allow us to look at the different way Brits and Americans disparage one another. Note that if you hover over one of the terms highlighted in blue, the explanation of that term will pop-up. Clicking on the term will take you to the BAD Words dictionary definition.
Group 1. You’re Obnoxious, Pompous or Boastful
It looks like the Americans have the edge in terms of the number of uniquely American words they use to refer to people they regard as contemptible, horrible or just plain bad. Many of these words are also used to imply stupidity but are included here because they are more often used to describe people that just aren’t liked.
Beginning with the nice short British words, Git (UK), like many in this list, is a relatively new addition to the lexicon. It has been around only since the mid-20th Century but I sense that it is already declining in popularity. It comes from beget and so its original meaning is probably that of illegitimate child or bastard. Next in line is Twat (UK), very widely used as a general insult, in the UK the word is not associated with the female genitalia to the same extent as I believe it is in the USA. Knob (UK) (meaning exactly the same as Dick which is used on both sides of the pond) but Knobhead (UK) and especially Dickhead (UK) (and variant Dickwad (UK)) are even more common. Derivations are pretty obvious. Prick (UK) is another of the most common ‘off-the-cuff’, penis-related insults but is only used in the shorter version. There are one or two British vagina-related insults too but they are definitely at the vulgar end of the scale and the line has to be drawn somewhere.
Staying with the safer anatomical derivatives, Arse (UK) and especially Arsehole (UK) are in daily use. Arse-Licker (UK) is used to describe a person who tries to get something for themselves by being insincerely pleasant or sycophantic to other people. Gobshite (UK) means someone who engages in nonsensical chatter or unwanted conversation so akin to big-mouth. Probably more Irish that British but is still used in the UK. Next, one of the most widely practised insults in the UK is the very British Wanker (UK). Meaning literally ‘someone who masturbates’, it is almost always aimed at males – as is its alternative, Tosser (UK) which has an identical meaning.
Our first American insult also has the same original meaning. Jerkoff (US) is used to label someone who behaves obnoxiously (whereas Jerk (US) describes a stupid person and so belongs in the next category). Ass (US) and Asshole (US) replace Arse (UK) and Arsehole (UK) of course. Staying in the buttock region, we encounter one of my favourites, Buttmunch (US) which may sound like some sort of horrible breakfast cereal but is in fact the US equivalent of Arse-Licker (UK) – meaning a crawler or sycophant. Then there is Bitch-Ass (US) which is like bitch, only worse and another favourite, Asshat (US), used in much the same context as Asshole.
Moving from bottoms to genitalia, Choad (US) is another relatively recent teenage slang word for penis and like so many others, has come to be used as an insult. It is believed to have come either from the Navajo word Chodis (meaning penis) or from Hindi, Bengali or Gujarati vernacular word codnā (meaning copulate). Then there is a strange group of American general insults that appear to be derived from vaginal irrigation (yes really). We’ve all heard Douche (US) and Douche Bag (US) – the latter being part of the equipment required to perform the former (so I’m told) – but unknown to me until I researched this article were Douchenozzle (US) (more equipment I assume) and Douche Canoe (US). I thought that the person sharing these with me was making them up, but no. These have much the same meaning as Douche but with greater emphasis – like Utter Bastard in place of Bastard. Interestingly, I understand that these terms are almost exclusively directed at male targets. Quite what canoes have to do with vaginal hygiene I have not got a clue. Perhaps someone can enlighten me. Or perhaps not. Ignorance may be bliss.
You are more likely to have encountered Son of a Bitch (US) (which actually comes from the long-lost Middle English biche-sone so it originated in the UK but is no longer used here) and Pissant (US) which has two meanings. It can be a dismissive insult meaning an insignificant person or can refer to one who obsesses about something or will follow rules even when inappropriate, so similar to pedant. British readers may not have heard Blowhard (US). No, this isn’t another insult of sexual origin. It means a pompous or boastful person (blowing their own trumpet hard perhaps).
So, honours (or honors) are roughly even in terms of the number of general insults.
To read on to I’ve Never Been So Insulted…! Part 2: You’re Stupid click HERE.
Flapdoodle: original meaning was a sexually incompetent person. Still used in the USA to mean nonsense ↩
Fopdoodle: insignificant fool ↩
Foozler: an inept or clumsy person; a bungler ↩
Hornswoggler: a fraud or cheat ↩
Jollocks: a fatty ↩
Mutton Shunter: A policeman – a reference to the police’s harassment of prostitutes ↩
Tallowcatch: probably derived from tallow ketch (a barrel of tallow for candles) – literally a barrel of fat. From Henry IV, part 1 ↩
Fustilarian: from Henry IV, part 2 ↩
Ethologist: one who studies animal behaviour ↩