If you haven’t read Part 1, it would be better to go back and start HERE.
Clearly, we don’t all go around denigrating people with learning difficulties but we often accuse one another of being stupid in jest, especially when someone makes a mistake (or ‘drops a bollock‘ as we say in the UK). Consequently, these are among the most used insults of all. Nonetheless, we use a completely different vocabulary on each side of the pond.
Group 2: You’re Stupid
Let’s start with the less controversial insults here, and they don’t get less controversial than Nincompoop (UK). This isn’t a new word. The earliest recorded use is as long ago as 1680, not long after the Mayflower sailed for the New World. The origin of the word is unclear but one theory is that it was a corruption of the Latin non compos mentis (not of sound mind). An alternative explanation is that it comes from the military and is short for ‘Non-Commissioned Officer‘. I have no idea which, if any, is true. When I was little, my mother called me a Nincompoop regularly. It is very rarely heard these days. Nor is its diminutive form Ninny (UK). Another one from my childhood is Gimp (UK). At school, we used it daily. Like Nincompoop, it dates from the 17th Century and originally meant lame due to crippling of the legs then broadened to mean a person who was deficient in any way. In the ’60s and ’70s, we used it to mean stupid. Today, its use has largely died out. I haven’t heard it in years.
Other common words still very much in use are Twit (UK) and Prat (UK) – which have remarkably similar histories. Twit is as mild as insults get and dates in this context from the early 20th century. It was originally a verb meaning to trick or taunt or ridicule. Prat was also a trick or prank as far back as the 10thC (and I believe still is in some parts of Scotland). It comes from the Middle English præt, prætt (meaning trick). Later, in the 16th century, it inexplicably changed to mean buttocks. Only since the 20th century has it been used to mean fool.
Plonker actually has two meanings. The first is penis and the second is fool, so, it is used in much the same way as Dick, Knob and Prick which can also mean both. Most British people would probably be unaware of this, but Pillock also belongs in the same group. Pillock comes from the archaic English Pillicock (meaning penis) which itself seems to have come from the identical word in Norwegian slang (also meaning penis). This might have something to do with the Vikings’ regular visits in medieval times, when they were in the habit of showing their pillicocks to the local wenches in North-East England at every opportunity. Unlike the other words in the group however, Pillock is now only used to mean fool or idiot. The original meaning is lost.
Berk (UK) is another one. It is now a relatively mild slang word meaning fool but was once an altogether more nasty insult. Few people are aware but Berk came from Cockney Rhyming Slang. The original expression was Berkshire Hunt (rhyming with… yes, you’ve guessed). The rhyming word is not spoken so it was Berkshire, later shortened to Berk.
Numpty (UK) is a Scottish slang word derived from the earlier and now obsolete Numps, meaning stupid person. So, if you see a guy with a ginger beard in a skirt with a haggis under his arm, shouting “Och, yer daft numpty!” you’ll now know that he thinks you’re an idiot. The word is now widely used throughout the UK. Bampot (UK) is also use in Scotland and the variant Barmpot (UK) in North-East England, especially around Newcastle. Both words have their origins in the fermentation of yeast. Really, see the dictionary entries..
Wally (UK) has a more amusing story behind it (which may even be partly true). It is said that a chap called Walter, or Wally for short, became separated from his companions at a 1960s pop festival and an announcement was made over the public address system to try and find him. The crowd took up a chant of “Wally, Wally, Wally…” and the chant was subsequently repeated whenever someone got lost. According to the story, it caught on. In reality, the word has been used since around 1900 so this can’t have been the true origin. However, its use did increase exponentially from the 1960’s so perhaps Wally’s disappearance did make the word much more popular. It may have also inspired the ‘Where’s Wally?’ books.1
Wazzock (UK) is from my home county of Yorkshire in the North of England. The word comes from Waz Sock. In this case Waz comes from Waz (UK) meaning urine. Sock means a fabric encasement (like the sock you would wear on your foot but bigger). To explain: In Yorkshire, offal was very popular and when cooked in large quantities the offal was placed in linens resembling large pillowcases which were referred to as ‘socks’. These prevented the offal from burning and sticking to the side of the cooking vessel. Unsurprisingly, these linen bags absorbed the odour of the offal (which is similar to urine, or waz) so they were discarded. They were colloquially referred to as ‘Waz Socks‘. The derogatory sense of a ‘Wazzock’ came to refer to someone with no purpose or worth and later came to mean a fool.
It was little used until it was popularised by a monologue written by Yorkshire-born comedian Tony Capstick which includes the immortal line: “You big fat, idle ugly wart”…. “You gret useless spawny-eyed parrot-faced wazzock.” The monologue was recorded and reached number 3 in the charts. Every child in the country was using the word within days (me included).
Twerp (UK) is interesting as it differs slightly from Twerp (US). The British version belongs here because it means fool. The American version usually means puny or insignificant so it probably should have featured in the first category. Muppet (UK) is currently a very popular and relatively mild insult which, as you might imagine, was inspired by Jim Henson’s Emmy-Award winning ‘Muppet Show‘ which ran on TV from 1976 to 1981 before moving into cinema. Most of the characters were regarded as ‘not the sharpest prongs on the fork’ and so Muppet became synonymous with stupidity.
Last but not least in the British fool insults is the extremely vulgar Fuckwit (UK).
As we’re now down amongst the F words, we may as well get the American version out of the way. Fucktard (US) converts an already fairly unpleasant insult, Retard (US), to something even more vulgar. I prefer the gentler (and to a Brit funnier) words like Doofus (US). This one may be from Europe too. It could be from the old Scottish Doof meaning dolt, or the German Doof meaning stupid so it may once have been used in Britain before it crossed the pond. Either way, it’s a great word. Dork (US) dates only from the 1960s and has implications of social ineptitude rather than just stupidity. It is another penis word, as this was its previous meaning. Staying the the Ds, Dipshit (US) is another of uncertain derivation but I have a theory. I suspect it is a shortening of Dippy as Shit (Dippy being another word occasionally used here to mean stupid or scatter-brained).
Dumbass (US) is fairly self-explanatory and a very recent addition to this list dating mainly from the 1980s and later. Dunderhead (US) on the other hand goes back several hundred years. It may have come from the old Scots verb donner meaning “to stun with a blow or loud noise”. Donnered therefore mean “stunned or stupefied” (or made stupid). Alongside Dunderhead, we then have Fathead (US), Airhead (US), Bonehead (US) and Knucklehead (US). The first three are pretty obvious but the fourth has a story behind it. R. F. Knucklehead was a fictional character created in 1942 by the US Army to show recruits what NOT to do. His misadventures were displayed on posters and this gave rise to the expression “Don’t be a Knucklehead“. The rest is obvious.
Another ‘stupid’ insult, Nimrod (US), also has a story behind it. In the UK, a Nimrod (UK) it is a military surveillance aircraft used by the Royal Air Force against submarines during the cold war and named after the biblical figure, Nimrod the mighty hunter, descendant of Noah and God-King of Babylon. I hadn’t heard of its American slang usage until recently. I subsequently discovered that Bugs Bunny is to blame. Apparently, Bugs Bunny was familiar with the Book of Genesis and used to make fun of Elmer Fudd by sarcastically calling him Nimrod (the mighty hunter) because he was so useless at hunting ‘wabbits’. It stuck and Nimrod came to mean stupid person.
Jerk (US) we have already encountered and is also used occasionally in the UK. It probably came from the medieval Middle English yerk. Goober (US) on the other hand has no European use or connection. It came from nguba meaning ‘peanut’ from one of the African languages used in the Congo, probably Bantu or Kimbundu, and is still used in some southern states to mean peanut. The word (and the legume, it isn’t actually a nut) came over with the slaves during the 1600s and 1700s.
Finally, Schmuck (US) comes from the Yiddish (shmok), in which language it is still regarded as obscene. Indeed, Jewish comedian, Lenny Bruce, was arrested in 1962 for using the term in a show on the West Coast.
You can continue to Part 3: You’re Ugly or Different by clicking HERE
Where‘s Wally? is a British series of children’s puzzle books created by English illustrator Martin Handford. The books consist of a series of detailed double-page illustrations depicting crowds of people doing a variety of amusing things at a given location. Readers are challenged to find a character named Wally hidden in the group. ↩