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10 Unique old-fashioned insults you didn't know you needed

BY Paul Anthony Jones

10th Oct 2022 Humour

10 Unique old-fashioned insults you didn't know you needed

Do you know a tutiviller (someone who gossips maliciously), or perhaps a mammothrept (a spoilt young man)? Here are 10 old-timey insults to use on your friends!

Have you ever needed the perfect word to hurl at someone in an argument, but found yourself unable to come up with just the right one? Not to worry, because hidden away in the dustier corners of the dictionary are plenty of long-forgotten and long-lost insults just waiting to be resurrected…

1. Drawlatch

In literal terms, a drawlatch is a housebreaker who “draws" up the latch of a door to sneak into someone’s home. By around the 1500s, however, that word had adopted a more figurative meaning, and had come to refer to a dawdler who lags behind everyone else.

"A drawlatch is a houseguest who fails to take a hint and outstays their welcome in your home"

This sense probably began life as a pun, based on the earlier use of “latch” to mean an idler or laggard. By the 19th century drawlatch had begun to be used in an even more specific sense: as a word for a houseguest who fails to take a hint and outstays their welcome in your home.

2. Tutilliver

A tutilliver is a malicious liar—and in particular, someone who tells scandalous, damaging tales. It comes from Tutillivus, the name of a demon from medieval Christian folklore who was said to collect all the mumbled or mispronounced words half-heartedly muttered by the bored attendees of church services. Then, on the day of judgement, Tutillivus would return to confront you with all these linguistic missteps as part of your life’s final assessment. 

3. Clinchpoop

A clinchpoop is an uncouth young man, or, as one 16th century dictionary described it, a man lacking “in him any humble behaviour,” and who “knoweth no fashions.”

Poop deck of the HMS Surprise

Poop deck of the HMS Surprise © BrokenSphere via Wikimedia Commons

Clinchers were supposedly dock-workers tasked with fastening or “clinching” together the timbers of a ship, which would make the “poop” here the same as in “poop deck”. That’s just one etymological suggestion, however, and this ancient word’s origins remain something of a mystery.

4. Jack-in-office

Thanks to its commonness, the name Jack crops up in all kinds of words and phrases in English, like Jack-at-a-pinch (someone you can fall back on at short notice), Jack-a-dandy (a vain, priggish fop) and Jack-among-the-maidens (a man who constantly seeks out women’s company or attention). A Jack-in-office, meanwhile, is a petty, nit-picking official.

5. Byspelt

Someone who always acts contrary to the most sensible course of action is a byspelt. That being said, this looks to have been a word used of all kinds of oddball characters; as an 1829 Glossary of North Country Words defined it, a byspelt was “a strange awkward figure or a mischievous person, acting contrary to reason or propriety.” 

6. Mammothrept

A mammothrept is a weakly, spoilt, mollycoddled young man—or, in a broader sense, someone who lacks good judgment or knowledge due to their immaturity or blinkeredness. Dating from the early 1600s, it literally describes a boy raised by his grandmother

7. Ultracrepidarian

Someone who gives unwanted opinions on subjects they have no knowledge of is an ultracrepidarian. Oddly, that’s a word derived from a Latin phrase literally meaning “above the sole of a shoe”.

"Someone who gives unwanted opinions on subjects they have no knowledge of is an ultracrepidarian"

According to the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, the artist Apelles of Kos was completing a painting of a man when a local cobbler happened to notice an error he had made in drawing the man’s shoe. The cobbler, knowing the anatomy of a shoe better than anyone, pointed out the error to Apelles, who gratefully corrected it. Spurred on, however, the cobbler then began pointing out other apparent flaws in Apelles’ painting, to which he supposedly replied “ne supra crepidam judicaret”—essentially, a shoemaker “should not judge beyond the shoe.”

8. Bottle-conjuror

A bottle-conjuror is an unscrupulous fraud or charlatan, or someone who never delivers on their promises. It comes from an infamous event of 1749, when an advertisement appeared in the London press claiming a conjuror would appear live on stage at the city’s Haymarket Theatre, and from there magically transport himself into a tiny glass bottle.

Haymarket Theatre

Haymarket Theatre, birthplace of the insult "bottle-conjuror" © MrsEllacott, via Wikimedia Commons

The trick sounded too good to be true—for the very good reason that it was. On the day of the performance, the magician not only failed to appear in the bottle, but failed to appear at the theatre at all, much to the disappointment of it sold-out audience. 

9. Busy-gap rogue

If you’re a busy-gap rogue, you’re just generally up to no good. The term alludes to the name of a famous gap in Hadrian’s Wall that was long used as a get-through by thieves and freebooters. 

10. Pinchfart

Dating from the 16th century, a pinchfart is a penny-pincher, someone so tight that they would (quite literally) try to hold on to everything they humanly can.

"Pinch is actually quite a fruitful word when it comes to insults"

Pinch is actually quite a fruitful word when it comes to insults, thanks to its associations with graspingness and tight-fistedness. As well as being a pinchfart, a habitual complainer would be a pinchface; an overly suspicious husband would be a pinchwife; and a pinch-crust is an ungenerous host who never serves their guests enough food or drink.

Why is This a Question by Paul Anthony Jones

Paul Anthony Jones is the author of upcoming book Why Is This A Question? (13 October, £14.99), published by Elliott&Thompson.

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