This approach, however, is highly suspect given, as Virginia Woolf has famously noted, language is a living organism and words are constantly evolving, constantly refreshed and replaced with other words signifying the same thing. The leap of logic, for instance, between observing that “usage of courage words like ‘bravery’ and ‘fortitude’ fell by 66 percent” and concluding that the precedence of these qualities in society has dropped accordingly is, to say the least, questionable. How many times in your lifetime have you used “balls” or another less-than-high-brow idiomatic slang substitute for the antiquated “fortitude”?
Wazzock was a particularly prevalent—and particularly loutish—insult in the 1990s. At the time, “lad culture” ran throughout British music and television, and wazzock, a North-England accented contraction of the sarcastic wiseacre (a know-it-all) became a powerful tool to shoot people down in an argument.
Though the etymology of lummox is heavily disputed, one thing is for certain: It came from East Anglia, the coastal outcrop of Britain above London. There, around 1825, someone threw out the word as an insult, and it stuck, becoming a typically British go-to term. Some linguists believe it comes from the verb lummock, which typified a lummox: it means a clumsy oaf.
Skivers and shirkers are one and the same. Someone who manages to duck under any responsibility and loaf around, doing very little, is a skiver. The origins of this particular insult are contested: some think it’s from an Old Norse word—skifa—meaning “slice,” whereby the worker slices off as much work as possible.
Often hurled at the opposite sex, to call someone a minger is to say they are objectively unattractive. Though etymologists struggle to agree where the word came from, it seems likely that it stems from the Old Scots word meng, meaning “sh**.” We didn’t say it was pretty.
For such a colloquial word, nincompoop actually has a very learned past. Samuel Johnson, the compiler of England’s first proper dictionary, claims the word comes from the Latin phrase non compos mentis (“not of right mind”), and was originally a legal term.
As words are used more regularly, the laziness of pronunciation can often warp them slightly. So it was with pillock. Originally pillicock (a Norwegian slang word for penis), the word has since been condensed to plain old pillock—though its meaning remains.
- CLOD HOPPER
According to the brilliant Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, dating back to 1811 and compiled by Captain Francis Grose, a clod hopper refers to a country farmer or ploughman—with the implication nowadays that you’re slow witted and bumbling.
Grose’s Dictionary of vulgarities is a rich seam of overlooked insults. In the 200 years since it was published, there have been several terms that have fallen out of favor. One of them is dunaker, a common thief of cows and calves.
By calling someone a git, you’re invoking the old Scots word get, which means “bastard.” When it came down south of the border, it lost its harsh vowel sound and became something softer, albeit with the required spikiness in.
Among the most beautiful is toska.
Linguists identify 15,000-year-old “ultraconserved words” that even our hunter-gatherer forbearers would understand. Meanwhile, Virginia Woolf reminds us that words are meant to change.
A surprising animated history of the word “miniature,” which comes from the red pigment used in Latin books.
Also see how famous words originated.
Astronaut lingo: Cosmic vocabulary circa 1953
Fashionista first appeared on page 100 of my 1993 book Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia. I created it because as I was writing about the fashion industry—and young model Gia Carangi’s immersion in it—there was no simple way to refer to all the people at a sitting for a magazine photo or print ad. I got tired of listing photographers, fashion editors, art directors, hairstylists, makeup artists, all their assistants, and models as the small army of people who descended on the scene. This was also the group that, according to one top fashion illustrator I interviewed, had collectively become “the famous non-famous people” at Studio 54.
Since I was re-reading a lot of the newspapers and magazines from the period of Gia’s supernova career in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and remembering a lot of coverage of Sandanistas (and a lot of “–ista” jokes among my mag writer friends), I just decided to try it.
The word only appeared four times in the book, and it did not immediately catch on. In fact, the first mention of it, in a May 2, 1993 review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, was a cranky one: The author, Carol Kramer, a magazine fashion editor herself, dissed my “vivid (if slightly unfair) indictment of what Mr. Fried … who tends toward hyperbole, calls the beauty-industrial complex.”
And then she bitch-slapped me for “fashionista,” saying “he makes up corny labels, too.”
Twenty years later, the word is everywhere—most recently and annoyingly in a bombardment of T.J. Maxx commercials. It sits happily in its place it the OED, which defines it as “a person employed in the creation or promotion of high fashion, such as a designer, photographer, model, fashion writer, etc. Also: a devotee of the fashion industry; a wearer of high-fashion clothing.”
Writer Stephen Fried, my former mentor, apologizes for inventing the word ‘fashionista’ 20 years ago. Also see how other now-common words got their start.
Vocal tract configurations and corresponding mouth configurations for three different vowels, along with sound spectra – from a fantastic 1963 illustrated guide to the science of speech published by Bell Telephone Labs.
How verbal messages progress from the mind of the speaker to the mind of the listener – gorgeous vintage diagram of the auditory pathways linking your brain with your ear.