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Sweartymology: The surprisingly offensive origins of your favourite mild insults

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Gary Ogden
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Your dad has probably called you a ‘berk’ before – I mean, you are one – but you probably didn’t think much of it. At least he didn’t call you a ‘twat’ – that’s much worse, right? Well, maybe not: ‘berk’ is just one outwardly mild insult that actually has a slightly stronger meaning.
 
So to make sure you know exactly what you’re calling that person who steps on your foot in the queue at Starbucks, here’s a lovely comprehensive list that uncovers the sometimes dark pasts of your dad’s favourite put-downs.
 
Berk
 
A berk is exactly the kind of person who would step on your foot in the queue at Starbucks, but it’s not as innocent a slight as you may think. To put it simply, it’s short for “Berkshire Hunt”, which is cockney rhyming slang, for, well, “cunt”. Which is coincidentally the exact same type of person who would step on your foot in the queue at Starbucks. Carry on as before.
 
Much like many of the words on this list, “berk” is a “minced oath”, which means the creation of a new word by shortening or deliberately misspelling a much stronger swear word or compound swear. They’re for people too scared to swear in Starbucks, basically.
 
Jabroni
 
It’s an insult favoured by everyone’s favourite human, The Rock, and is ostensibly an alternative way of saying “jobber”, which is basically a wrestler whose sole job is to lose and make the big stars look good. However, it can also unfortunately be connected to “jaboney”, which is an American word that can (and shouldn’t) be used to describe an immigrant. NOTHING IS OK ANYMORE.
 
Dipstick
 
I always thought when somebody used this word, that they were merely comparing me to the long stick which is used to check the oil level in a car engine. Turns out, “dipstick” comes from “dip”, which was 1920s slang for a stupid person. Next came “dipshit”, which is obviously a lot stronger, so those less daring aggressors lightened it to “dipstick”. Quite innocent, this one.

A berk: that's you

Plonker
 
Rodney is a plonker, we all know that – we’ve watched it being said with our families, way before the watershed. Shame it means a dick, then. The earliest reference of this can be found around 1920, when the phrase “pull one’s plonker” first popped up. You can guess what that means.
 
It can also be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century, when it merely meant something which was large. Obviously, it wasn’t long until someone (presumably one of my ancestors) decided to refer to their penis using the same word. Nothing’s changed.
 
Sod
 
Pretty PG insult here, no? You’d say “sod” out loud on Christmas day, wouldn’t you? 
 
“You’ve dropped the sodding blancmange, you sod – now we’ve got sod-all to eat. Sod it.” etc. But hey! Guess what? It’s bad, don’t say it anymore – it’s short for “sodomite”.
 
Cretin
 
I was certainly called a cretin by at least one teacher, probably (definitely) because I was acting up at some point; but were they fully aware of the etymology of the word? I assume not, as it was a medical term from the French “crétin”, which essentially referred to a “dwarfed or deformed idiot”, or someone who was affected by a congenital thyroid deficiency. Probably not the type of word you should be using in the classroom, teach.

Pillock
 
I always thought of a pillock as a type of sturdy pillar, which was wrong and unfounded, of course, because it – surprise, surprise – means “cock”.
 
It stems from a Norwegian slang word for your willy – “pillicock” – and has simply been shortened because English people are lazy. And their penises are smaller.
 
Prat 
 
What is a prat? An idiot? A stupid? A silly billy? No, an arse cheek. A buttock. It was originally from the 1560s and was slang used in criminal circles. That’s why a “pratfall” is called a pratfall – you’re falling on your buttocks aren’t you? You sod. I mean prat.

Nonce
 
Whereas you may call someone a nonce (or nonse) if they walked into a glass door or something, it’s probably best not to, seeing as it’s UK criminal slang for a paedophile. It potentially stems from “nance” or “nancy boy”, but is used in prisons to denote that certain type of offender.
 
Also, there are numerous reports across this old internet that it’s actually an acronym for “Not of Normal Criminal Element” or “Not on Normal Courtyard Exercise” but there’s no real evidence to show that the word comes from this. Even if it’s possibly used in that way nowadays, it’s most likely it was an acronym made in reverse.
 
Like that one you did for adidas when you were a kid. You know the one.
 
Ponce
 
A “ponce” was originally a pimp’s right-hand man – someone employed to find clients/be a bodyguard. However, its meaning has now morphed into meaning a posh person, or an effeminate male.
 
It also derives from homosexual slang: the Spanish “puto” for male prostitute, or the French “pront”, meaning prostitute.
 
Git
 
You’d call a cat a git, or a mouse or something – a person or animal who is a bit annoying, basically. However, it’s slightly more complicated than that: it originates in Scotland, with the word “get”, which essentially means illegitimate child. “Get” comes from “beget”, which at one point was used to refer to the process of (specifically) a man having a child. Whether that child turned out to be a git or not, I don’t know – probably depended on the dad.

Numpty
 
The history behind this word is quite innocent, but that doesn’t mean you should use it because it’s a horrible word and I hate it. Annoying people say it. 
 
It comes from Scotland (so many angry Scottish people making up insults), and is a shortening of “empty head”. Through the Scottish accent, it formed “umpty heid”, which eventually transformed into “numpty” (the worst insult in the world). Delete it.

Is that Ronnie Pickering?

Jerk
 
This seemingly harmless term comes from a seemingly harmless origin. A “jerkwater town” was a phrase coined by railroad workers having to take on boiler water from a creek or river because the town had no water tank. This led “jerkwater” to mean inferior or insignificant. This was then shortened to “jerk”.
 
The whole “jerking off” pastime can’t have hurt its eventual use as an insult, though. A jerk is a wanker, if we boil it down.
 
Tosser
 
Seeing as we’ve just looked at “jerk”, we might as well look at its spiritual brother. Much like “jerk off” means “to have a quick wank, isn’t it”, so too does “toss off” – its first appearance arising in 1735. Join the dots: if you are “tossing off”, then you are a “tosser”. Next.
 
Square 
 
“Be there or be square,” is what I said on my last birthday party invite. It turns out all my friends were square. But that’s by-the-by, the term comes from the jazz world and first popped up in the 1920s. It meant a person who was a bit out-of-touch, a bit uncool (or not into jazz, basically).
 
It comes from the square shape that the conductor’s hands make, denoting the regular four-beat rhythm. Why that was then used to tar the non-jazz crowd, I’m not sure.
 
Div
 
It’s a bit murky, this one. The original meaning could be pretty tame, if we take the theory that it comes from “divot” – you know, a big chunk of mud, like a “clod”. However, it becomes altogether rather unacceptable if it does, in fact, come from “individual needs child”. However, on my etymology adventure, most sources point to the first explanation, thankfully.

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Your nan's getting a bit rude in her old age

Twit 
 
“Twit” is not just a mild version of “twat”, it’s something different completely, and much less offensive. It probably came from the verb “to twit”, which essentially means an expression of disapproval. It was also most likely spurred on by “nitwit”, which was already in existence as early as 1922, and stemmed from “nit” meaning “nothing”.
 
If you are a twit, then, you are essentially a nothing that should be met with disapproval. A great thing to call someone, in my book. “Twat” is also good, though. Don’t forget “twat”.
 
Wally
 
“Wally” obviously comes from “Walter”, but why is it used as an insult? What did Walter do?
 
Well, an urban legend (which by all accounts, seems to be true) says that it originates from an unknown music festival in the ‘70s (most likely Isle Of Wight), where a couple of friends spotted their lost mate Wally and started shouting his name to get his attention. The chant of “Wally! Wally!” caught on instantly and spread until nearly the whole crowd were chanting it. This tradition carried on at festivals over the years. So, you’re a “wally” because you got lost, basically – you’re a bit of an idiot.
 
The term “wally” was also applied to pickled gherkins in fish and chip shops back in the day. To bring it all back to a tried-and-tested formula: pickles look like dicks.
 
Nerd
 
First off, this is you. Now that’s out the way, let’s look into where it came from.

It first appeared as “nerd” back in 1950 in the Dr. Suess book If I Ran The Zoo, but chances are it was mere nonsense in that context. One more likely theory is that is comes from “nurd”, a word possibly coined by author Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep), that derives from “knurd” – or “drunk” spelled backwards. “Knurd” was used to describe people who studied rather than partied, so you can see how it came to mean what it does today. Namely, you.
 
Another potential idea was that it came from the 1940s slang word “nert”, which meant a “stupid or crazy person”, and came from “nut”. 
 
Mug
 
Used fondly by characters in Danny Dyer movies, “mug” was originally used to describe a person’s face. This is because, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, mugs (the ones you drink out of) quite often had ugly faces decorated onto them, so it went from there. Of course, the next step was a “mug shot”, and so “mug” came to mean an undesirable, or a criminal; much like characters in Danny Dyer movies.

***

Stay “tuned” for the next part in this must-read, incredibly important series, where I’ll look at actual, real, naughty swear words and see where they come from, too.

Most will originate from the penis, I assume. There seems to be a pattern here.

(Images: iStock)

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Gary Ogden

Shortlist writer and "the least woke person in the office", Gary Ogden, likes horror movies, Cheestrings, tapping his leg under the desk, "having a drink", PDAs, not having eczema anymore, hiding from responsibility, screaming into the mirror whenever he is alone, and assorted other things. Mainly the eczema thing though. @garyblogden

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