Insults Part 3: You’re Ugly or Different

If you haven’t read Parts 1 and 2, it would be better to go back and start HERE.

Group 3. You’re Ugly

These days, you would think that when we are so obsessed with celebrity, fashion and good looks, there would be as many insults about appearance as there are about intellect, but no. Here, insults are far more scarce. Could it be because they are more hurtful?

Most people have heard the story of the famous exchange between British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and American-born and tea-total Viscountess Nancy Astor in which Churchill allegedly accused Astor of being ugly in retort when she accused him of being drunk. Alas, the story is inaccurate. It wasn’t Lady Astor at all but British Member of Parliament, Bessie Braddock MP, the labour member for Liverpool. This is what was actually said (from Churchill’s own account):

Braddock: “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more you are disgustingly drunk.”

Churchill: "Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what’s more, you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly".

If the exchange happened today, Churchill would probably say "Bessie, you’re a Minger (UK)" (that’s a hard G as in sing, not a soft G as in hinge). Minge (UK), which does have a soft G, has little to do with Minger but is vulgar slang for the female genitalia. Minger currently means ugly but once meant smelly, derived as it is from the Scots Mingin meaning smelly from Ming meaning excrement. Minger is almost always directed at female targets and I can think of no equivalents which could be directed at males. Equality, it seems, is still some way off. If anyone knows any male-only ugly insults, please let me know by commenting below.

Churchill would have struggled to find an alternative word. The only other one I have found is Munter (UK) which is used in exactly the same way as Minger and is a relatively new word, probably not much more than a decade old here in the UK. It apparently started its life in New Zealand as a word for very drunk, came to refer to drug addicts who had completely lost the plot and somehow morphed to mean ugly. Clatty (UK) (or Clattie or Clauty) has also been suggested (though I had never heard it before). It is either Irish or Scottish and means a shabby, dirty or slovenly person so not too far from the ugly tree. Also used as an adjective. These few aside, we Brits don’t seem to have many stand-alone ‘ugly’ insults. You could be forgiven for thinking that there might be more.

We do have some amusing ‘ugly’ phrases though such as "His face is like a bag o’ spanners" or the Scottish "She’s got an arse like bag o’ washin’". One I hadn’t heard of until recently me that made me smile was "He’s got a face like a melted welly" (see Welly (UK)). However, there are very few single words that do a similar job.

Initially, I could barely think of any American one-word ‘ugly’ insults either. So I took to Twitter and a torrent of them came back at me. It turns out that the Americans have many more ‘ugly’ insults than the Brits. Here are some of them:

Skank (US) was the most often suggested insult and so is probably the widest used but it seems to have more to do with sleaziness or promiscuity so probably belongs in the next section. Apparently, a Monet (US) is someone who looks attractive from a distance but doesn’t bear close examination. Clever that one. Swamp Donkey (US) refers to an ugly female (but can also mean a very sweaty scrotum, and, in Western Canada, it means a Moose; in Pennsylvania and Kentucky, it means a deer and in Texas, it means someone from Louisiana! Little bit of interstate rivalry going on there then!). Bushpig (US) comes from Australian Bushpig which is the equivalent in North America of the European Wild Boar and so conjures up visions of crooked teeth and surplus facial hair. Schlubb (US) is used to mean unattractive person but can also be used more generally to mean stupid or even worthless.

There are literally dozens of others. There is Mudpout (US) (a particularly unattractive species of catfish), Nauf (US) (acronym for Nice Ass, Ugly Face) and Nottie (US) (the ugly girl in a pair, usually with a very good looking friend – from ‘The Hottie and the Nottie’, a 2008 romantic comedy film starring Paris Hilton which was described as one of the worst films of all time when Ms Hilton won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress at the 29th Golden Raspberry Awards – one of three ‘Razzies’ she won that year, bless her).

Most of these insults are very regional and others are just too unpleasant to quote here. Suffice to say, it seems that the Americans are streets ahead when it comes to ugly insults – at least in terms of sheer quantity. It may explain why there are so many orthodontists in the USA. And plastic surgeons.

Group 4. You’re Different

In an age of increasing acceptance of gender identity, sexual preference and diversity in general, it seems that there is still some work to be done. Insults abound for people we see as different to ourselves.

So what do I mean by different? Well, I mean belonging to any group that differs in ethnicity, religion, strength, sexuality or just hair colour from the user of the insult. As we wander into this sensitive area, the risk gets higher because by their very nature, many of these insults are highly offensive. So, for the record, I’m exploring here, not advocating in any way the use of these words. I strongly disapprove of many of them.

That said, let’s begin with promiscuity. Slut, floozy and hussy seem to be used on both sides of the pond but other slang synonyms vary widely. For instance, in the UK, we use Slapper (UK). This is probably a corruption of shlepper or schlepper, a word of Yiddish origin, meaning slovenly or immoral woman. It came to mean prostitute and later was used more generally to mean promiscuous or of loose morals. Slag (UK) is very similar, possibly a tad more vulgar. It too meant prostitute and before that, was used to label a coward – very different to Slag (US) which will be known to baseball fans. Scrubber (UK) is similar to Slag. We also have Tart (UK), another former prostitute synonym which may originally have had a much nicer meaning derived from rhyming slang – Jam Tart once meaning Sweetheart. Looking a little further back, Strumpet (UK) is an insult I haven’t heard in many years but as I recall, was used to refer to a mistress. It is probably used in a similar way to Trollop which I think crossed the pond.

The North American equivalent to Tart (UK) is probably Tramp (US). In the UK, Tramp means a homeless person who travels from place to place as a vagrant. The American meaning possibly derives from the occasional practice of female vagrants to offer sexual favours in return for cash. Skank (US) we encountered in part 2 but it really belongs here with the promiscuous insults.

Hoochie (US) was a new one on me. Probably from Hoochie Coochie, a sexually provocative dance from the late 19th century. Roundheeels (US) is another I had not encountered. This word (singular despite the S) comes from the notion that wearing shoes with rounded heels makes it difficult to remain standing so the word was originally used to describe an easily beaten prizefighter. In other words, it meant ‘pushover’. From there it came to refer to a woman who was a pushover – i.e. one who consented to sex rather easily. Chippie (US) is one that could easily lead to misunderstandings. In the UK, a Chippie is where we go to buy our fish and chips. It is also construction-speak for carpenter. In the US, it means much the same as all the others above. So, if a British builder working in the States asked where he might find a few Chippies for his construction site, he might get rather more than he bargained for.

Worst of all the American promiscuous insults is the extremely vulgar Jizzbucket (US), which I trust will not need an explanation from me. We have a very similar word, Tosspot (UK), which is also an insult but whilst it may originally have shared the same meaning, it is now I believe a more general insult akin to Twat (UK), or Prick (UK) and many others.

It is sad that all of these promiscuity-based insults, just like most of the ugly insults, seem to be exclusively directed at females. It says a lot about our society and how much work we have to do before there is true equality. To redress the balance therefore, let us look next at a group of insults that are mostly directed at the male of the species – those which imply that the target of the insult is weak and/or effeminate.

We have an extensive shared vocabulary when it comes to weak insults, many of which also can be used to mean effeminate. Pansy, Sissy, Wimp and Wuss are all used extensively in both American and British English. Nance (US) and Nancy Boy (UK) (or just Nancy (UK)) are subtly different yet both are used to describe an effeminate man or homosexual. The words have a very long history. The American ‘Nance’ was a gay burlesque comic character from the 1930s who entertained audiences as he pranced about the stage of Burlesque Emporiums, creating hilarious sketches of gay life. Towards the end of the ’30s, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, fearful of how the lurid burlesque shows would make his city look in the upcoming World’s Fair of 1939, cracked down on the houses. Much of LaGuardia’s anger was aimed at the Nance character, whom critics said encouraged audiences of gay men having sex in the dark balconies of the burlesque theatres. LaGuardia got the police to close down many of the establishments and forced those that remained to drop the Nance character.

But the true origin may go back a further 200 years to, of course, the UK. Here, Nancy was a pet name used for someone called Ann, Anna or Agnes. The insult Nance/Nancy/Nancy Boy was once ‘Miss Nancy‘. The original Miss Nancy, however, was not a man but is said to be a Mrs. Anna Oldfield, a celebrated British actress, who died in 1730. Indeed, she was so celebrated that she was buried in Westminster Abbey. She was extremely vain and particular about her dress, and as she lay in state, attended by two noblemen, she was dressed, as she had instructed shortly before her death, in "a very fine Brussels lace head-dress, a Holland shift with a tucker and double ruffles of the same lace, a pair of new kid gloves." So her nickname, Miss Nancy, became associated with narcissism and came to refer to effeminate males.

The truth is that we don’t have many exclusive British or American English insults for weak/effeminate men. We Brits, or to be more accurate, Scots, have Jessie (UK). It can mean effeminate or cowardly: "What are you running away fer, ya Jessie!". Americans have Pussy (US). Whilst in the UK that would probably mean vagina, in the US it is the same as Jessie, so means weakling or coward. Pantywaist (US) is my favourite though. Originally a two-piece child’s garment that buttoned together at the waist, it is unclear how it came to have its contemporary meaning but it’s a great word nonetheless.

Which brings us to words specifically aimed at gay men. Fag (US) is offensive slang for gay man and so the British expression "I’m just nipping out for a quick fag" has always caused much amusement at meetings with American colleagues (Fag (UK) meaning cigarette of course). The unshortened Faggot (US) has the same meaning – except in the UK where Faggot (UK) is a type of meatball (or a bundle of sticks). All the other gay insults I can think of are shared across the pond.

Our final ‘different’ insults are based on social class and so it is no surprise to hear that they are all British English. Pikey (UK) is an insult originally used to describe gypsies, specifically Irish travellers, but it has broadened to mean anyone of low social class, often living in run-down housing with connotations of benefit fraud, single parenthood and so on. Chav (UK) is not quite the same but also has implications of low social status. A Chav though usually refers to a youth typically wearing designer sportswear (tracksuit bottoms, hoodie), expensive Trainers (UK)/Sneakers (US) and oversized bling (showy jewellery). The Scottish version, Ned (UK), has a very similar meaning.

Chav is also used more broadly to describe loutish and occasionally violent youths. Use of the term chav was reported in The Guardian newspaper in 2011 as “class abuse by people asserting superiority”. In that sense, it is perhaps the opposite of Sloanie (UK) or Sloane Ranger (UK) which is used to deride someone of middle or upper social class in a similar way or Toff (UK) (possibly short for toffee-nosed git). Chav is said to be an acronym for ‘council house and violent‘ (a council house meaning rented accommodation provided by the state). This is most likely to be a post-rationalisation and the term is more likely to come from the old Romany words chavi or charver meaning child. Chavvy is indeed the most common adjectival version of the word and has been in use since the 19th century. The noun chav is probably no more than 20 years old.

Some might point out that religion and race are differences with many insults attached to them. Yes they are, but I’m just not going to go there. The line has to be drawn somewhere.

And so, we conclude our exploration of how the way we insult one another on each side of the Atlantic. On a quick count of the words used in these posts, the Americans have the richer insult vocabulary (winning 50:44). However, I hope readers will offer additional words (and corrections) by adding a comment below. And please share the posts on social media. Thank you.

4 thoughts on “Insults Part 3: You’re Ugly or Different”

  1. We do have the vagina sense of “pussy” in AmE as well as the “weak-willed man” sense. Cf., ah, the notorious comments of a certain Donald J. Trump.

    Reply
    • And the cat sense too I assume. The only meaning we don’t really share is the ‘wimp’ one it seems. I must add it to the dictionary. It has been on the ‘To-Add’ list for some time.

      Reply
    • Peter, I don’t believe ‘pussy’ has a rhyming slang connection. I believe it was once (16thC) a term of endearment for a woman and didn’t become slang for vagina until the 19thC. Perhaps originally from Old Norse ‘puss’ meaning “pocket, pouch” or Low German ‘puse’ meaning “vulva”. In French, I believe that ‘chat’ means both cat and pudenda, so we may have had an equivalent use of pussy. So, whilst pussy cat = twat does work, bit is more likely on this occasion to be coincidence I think.

      Reply

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