The best long-lost British swear words
A language historian has revealed the best long-lost swear words from Britain - including nippy, tarse and wittol.
Dr Todd Gray MBE has spent years studying insults from history - and has published a list of some of the finest examples that have disappeared.
He unearthed more than 200 colourful vanished adjectives including “bald-arse” and “hollow-mouthed” - indicating a lack of teeth.
Others include “long-nosed”; “gouty-legged”; “chamber pot” and “copper-nosed” from the practice of treating syphilis with copper.
Highlights include “nippy” and “tarse”, meaning penis. and wittol, meaning a husband complicit in his wife’s adultery.
Other old swear words include “polecat” meaning a lewd woman and “cucumber”, which was another word for a cuckold.
A dictionary of insults
Dr Gray, a research fellow at the University of Exeter, spent years trawling through 40,000 documents from the church and state courts in the 1500s and 1600s.
This month, he published his research in the monograph ‘Strumpets and Ninnycocks: Name calling in Devon, 1540-1640’, as well as in the spin-off book ‘How to swear like an Elizabethan in Devon’ - a dictionary of insults.
Many of the documents he found were related to slander cases, in which people would complain that they had been verbally insulted.
Different strokes for different folks
Dr Gray, 58, said: “At the very heart of everything is the need to keep a good reputation.
‘’Reputation had such a big impact on your life and you could lose your job or your home,”
“If a woman had a bad reputation, she could lose her husband. I’ve seen references to men leaving their wives because of gossip, or to women who couldn’t get married because things had been said about them.”
Common themes included illicit sex, low intelligence, dishonesty, witchcraft and disease.
Women were most often called names when they were suspected of having illicit sex, the most common insult being “whore”.
The word whore could be qualified with more than 200 adjectives, including platter-face, bald, scurvy-mouthed, beetle-browed, poxy, copper-nosed or fat-arsed.
Other so-called ‘whores’ were identified by the place in which they were active - hence why some unfortunate women were called names such as “Broom Close Whore”, “Ditch Whore”, “Furse Whore” and “Hedge Whore”.
Men, on the other hand, were more likely to be targeted for dishonesty and lack of intelligence.
Two of the most common insults was “rogue”, meaning a disreputable man, and “knave”. For example: “Thou art a Knave and an Arrant Knave for thou hast attempted my chastity and thou wouldst have had the carnal knowledge of my body”.
A ninnyhammer was “a man whose wife is unfaithful, and he’s foolish with it. He doesn’t realize his wife is running around behind his back”.
Other highlights of Dr Gray’s collection include “nippy” and “tarse”, meaning penis; wittol, meaning a husband complicit in his wife’s adultery; “punk” and “polecat”, both meaning a lewd woman; and “cucumber”, which was another word for a cuckold.
And then there are the scatological insults, which Gray says were often directed at figures of authority.
He said: “S--t is there all the time The word turd is also very common.
‘’But the one they really liked was the word fart. ‘I don’t care a fart for you.’ ‘Bring the mayor to me and I will fart in his mouth.’”
Other long lost swear words he includes are ninnycock, jackanapes and ninnyhammer.
There is also jade, punk, drab, hackney, rascal, varlet, sucker, cockscomb, woodcock, lubber, whoremonger and minx.
Moving with the times
Some of the words and phrases still have the power to shock today, but there are also crucial differences.
“Today we are dominated by three body parts - and if you insult someone, you call people those things. Whereas, back then, swearing was built around bad behaviours,” said Dr Gray.
“If you call someone a bastard today, it means they are not a nice man - but in the past it used to refer to illegitimacy. If children were born out of wedlock, it was a disgrace that stayed with them their whole lives.”
Todd’s book ‘Strumpets and Ninnycocks - Name Calling in Devon, 1540 -1640’’ is available in paperback now.