Being American, you probably think you know all the insults there are in the English language, but England has many more to share. Whether you’re having it out with a mate and want to throw a good jab at him or you need to tell someone what a terrible person they really are, there are plenty of great insults for all occasions in England. We have identified ten of our favorites and an explanation of their meanings below. You can give us some of your favorite insults in the comments and we promise not to be too cross.
Gormless is an adjective that describes someone who’s stupid or clumsy. The word derives from the 1880s Century and was a variant spelling of gaumless, which itself dates back to the 18th Century and meant the same thing. The root word “gaum” meant “understanding”, so adding suffix means “someone who doesn’t understand.”
Another word for an idiot, pillock actually derives from “pillicock”, the Scandinavian word for “penis”. Its origin dates back to the 16th Century and is roughly the same as calling someone a “dickhead.”
Slag can have different meanings depending on whom the insult is directed. It was originally recorded around 1780 as a slang term for a worthless person. It has since come to mean someone who’s contemptible, but when used towards a woman, it’s like calling her a slut in American English.
Yet another word for calling someone an idiot, tosser originates around the 1970s and essentially refers to one who pleasures himself (or “tosses off”). The use of that phrase to mean masturbation came from an erotic novel, The Pearl, in 1879, though it’s possibly even older. It’s very similar to another slang term that means the same thing—“wanker”.
You’ve lost the plot
Dating back to the 17th Century, this phrase is one that you use on someone who seems easily confused, that is to say, they’ve no idea what’s going on. In so doing, they’ve “lost the plot” of their own story.
If someone calls you a muppet, they are essentially saying you’re like a puppet. It derives from the puppets created by Jim Henson and the words were his own invention to describe how they had the qualities of marionettes and puppets. Being called this means the other person thinks you’re so dumb and ineffectual that you actually need help to get through life.
This word comes from another great contributor to our childhoods—Road Dahl. The word originated as a verb in the 16th Century meaning “to taunt”. Its modern usage as a slang insult came from Dahl’s 1980 book The Twits, which tells of a mean-spirited husband and wife who delight in pranking one another. As a result, it now refers to silly or annoying people.
Mad as a bag of ferrets
There are a lot of ways in England to describe someone as crazy. “Mad as a hatter” for instance, refers to a time when hatters used mercury in their trade, the exposure to which eventually caused severe neurological damage. As you might expect for “mad as a bag of ferrets”, stuffing a bunch of ferrets into a bag will naturally cause them to freak out and try to escape, creating a rather chaotic scene.
Like the f-word, bugger has many different uses and forms. It comes from the Latin “bulgaris” meaning heretic and the spelling changed over time to the Anglo-French “bugre” and Middle English “bougure”. It referred to the Bulgarian Bogomils sect that was known for its deviant sexual preferences. Over time, it came to refer to the act of sodomy and is now a catch-all word that can be an exclamation of surprise (“Well, bugger me”), a noun referring to a person (“Look at that bugger”), an insult akin to “go away” (“Bugger off”), or still to refer to the act of sodomy.
One last word meaning someone is foolish or crazy, “daft” is actually the oldest insult on this list and comes from before the Norman period. In Middle English it was spelled “dafte” and meant someone who was awkward or uncouth.
Nick Davies says
Twit predates Dahl. Common playground insult when I was a kid in the sixties.
From the OED:
a. A criticism or reproach, esp. one made in a good-humoured or teasing way; a taunt, a jibe. Cf. twit v. 1a.
1528 in J. Strype Eccl. Mem. (1721) I. App. xvii. 38 Which bookes the sayd Frear dyd litle regard, and made a twyte of it.
1578 J. Rolland Seuin Seages 107 O twyte vntrew, and taill vnsicker.
1664 G. Etherege Comical Revenge v. v. 89 Upon condition that there be no twits of the good man Departed.
1847 L. Hunt Men, Women, & Bks. II. x. 224 An occasional twit at him for disappointing her.
1908 N.Y. Times 7 Oct. 4/7 If that’s a twit at me..I will tell you I am something of a Westerner myself.
2002 P. Muldoon Moy Sand & Gravel 13 He..Knew he’d have to surmount The twits and taunts Of the stable lad.
b. colloquial (originally and chiefly British). A stupid, silly, or annoying person; a fool, an idiot.Now the usual sense.See also upper-class twit n. at upper adj. Additions.
1934 E. Linklater Magnus Merriman xvi. 178 He was..a false hero who flaunted himself in fine colours when he was drunk and dwindled to a shabby twit when sober.
1960 F. Raphael Limits of Love i. iii. 34 Don’t be a twit, Sid.
1977 C. McCullough Thorn Birds xviii. 467 There’s no need to get so worked up about it, you twit.
2006 Independent 19 Apr. (Property section) 25/3 Estate agents are such twits. It’s a relief to have one who knows their arse from their elbow.
My favourite is Plonker, as used on a regular basis by Delboy in Only Fools and Horses and always directed at his brother Rodney. I use this one over and over!!!
Also see the “Upper Class Twit of the Year Competition” by Monty Python’s Flying Circus.(1970, Series 1, Episode 12).
Patricia Harrington says
Who wrote the phrase “what a dangerous web we weave when at first we deceive?”
William Wilkie says
Old Willie.Shakspeare. Who else?
Rhys Thomas says
Walter Scott in the play Marmion