Whether you’re enjoying the sharp taste of an IPA or disliking some nasty words from a colleague, it’s hard not to talk about bitterness. But we could all use a few new—or old—terms for this all-too-common concept. So let’s dig into the history of English to find a few words fit to describe barbs and rhubarbs.
Have you ever spoken with bile and gall? If so, you’ll understand why stomachous is also a word describing bitterness, especially bitter words and feelings. This is an angry word to describe spiteful outbursts that come when you’ve had a bellyful of something. In The Faerie Queen, Edmond Spencer used the term, describing those who, “With sterne lookes, and stomachous disdaine, Gaue signes of grudge and discontentment vaine." You can also say someone is “stomachously angry,” a level of anger requiring a handful of antacids.
Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is the patron plant of bitterness, which has made wormwood synonymous with the concept. Since at least the 1500s, that has included wormwood being used as an adjective. Shakespeare used the term in this way: “Thy secret pleasure turnes to open shame ... Thy sugred tongue to bitter wormwood tast.” George Parsons Lathrop reinforced this meaning in 1895 via the bitterness of regret, describing “the wormwood memories of wrongs in the past.” Unsurprisingly, some beers are brewed with wormwood to add bitterness, like Storm Wormwood IPA.
The earliest uses of brinish are waterlogged, referring to saltiness of the sea. The term then shifted to tears and then more general bitterness. Samuel Hieron used it in his 1620 book Works: “These brinish inuectiues are vnsauory” [sic]. Nothing can ruin your day quite like brinish invective.
Crabby is a popular word for moods that are, shall we say, not reminiscent of puppies and rainbows. Crabbed has likewise been used to describe people in ways that aren’t flattering to the crab community. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological note is amusing: “The primary reference was to the crooked or wayward gait of the crustacean, and the contradictory, perverse, and fractious disposition which this expressed.” This led to a variety of meanings running the gamut from perverse to combative to irritable—so bitter fits right in. Since the 1400s, crabbed has sometimes referred to tastes and other things that are closer to a triple IPA than a chocolate cookie. OED examples of “crabbed supper” and “crabbed entertainment” both sound displeasing to the stomach.
This word, found in English since the 1600s, is mainly a literary term suggesting wormwood in its early uses; later, it started applying to the green alcohol that is bitter and often illegal. A 1635 couplet from poet Thomas Randolph sounds like sound dietary advice: “Best Physique then, when gall with sugar meets, Tempring Absinthian bitternesse with sweets.” A later use, from 1882 by poet Egbert Martin, makes a more spiritual recommendation: “Prayer can empty life's absinthian gall, Rest and peace and quiet wait its call.”
Now here’s a bizarre, and rare, twist on a common word. Though we’re most familiar with rodents as the nasty rats digging through your garbage and the adorable hamsters spinning in a wheel, this term has occasionally been an adjective. Though later uses apply to corrosiveness and literal rodents, the earliest known example refers to bitterness. A medical example from 1633, referring to the bodily humors, shows how this odd term was used: “They offend in quality, being too hot, or too cold, or too sharp, and rodent.”
The first uses of nippit, found in the 1500s, refer to scarcity, which may be because this is a variation of nipped. In the 1800s, the term spread to miserliness and narrow-mindedness, and from there to more general bitterness. OED examples describe “nippit words” and people who are “mean or nippit.”
This marvelous word first referred to physical and mental quickness. A “snell remark” showed a quick wit. But that keenness spread to a different sort of sharpness: the severity or crispness of bitter weather. An 1822 use from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine uses this sense: “The wintry air is snell and keen.”
The Latinate term for bitterness and harshness of various sorts appears in José Francisco de Isla's 1772 book The History of the Famous Preacher Friar Gerund de Campazas, describing some non-sweet folks: "Some so tetrical, so cross-grained, and of so corrupt a taste." A similar meaning is shared by the also-rare terms tetric, tetricity, tetricious, and tetritude. Thankfully, there is no relation to the sweet game of Tetris.