42 Old English Insults
Besides being the greatest writer in the history of the English language, William Shakespeare was the master of the pithy put-down. So the nervous servant who tells Macbeth his castle is under attack is dismissed as a “cream-faced loon.” Oswald in King Lear isn’t just a useless idiot, he’s a “whoreson zed,” an “unnecessary letter.” Lear’s ungrateful daughter Goneril is “a plague-sore,” an “embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.” And when Falstaff doubts something Mistress Quickly has said in Henry IV: Part 1, he claims, “there’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.” (And there’s a good chance he didn’t intend “stewed prune” to mean dried fruit.) But you don’t have to rely just on Shakespeare to spice up your vocabulary. Next time someone winds you up or you need to win an argument in fine style, why not try dropping one of these old-fashioned insults into your conversation?
Abydos was a city in Ancient Egypt whose inhabitants, according to one 19th century dictionary, “were famous for inventing slanders and boasting of them.” Whether that’s true or not, the name Abydos is the origin of abydocomist—a liar who brags about their lies.
An adulterer. This appears to be another of Shakespeare’s inventions that became popular in Victorian slang.
To bespawl means to spit or dribble. A bespawler is a slobbering person, who spits when he talks.
An 18th century word for an especially large shoe, and consequently a clumsy or awkward person.
As well as being another name for a nincompoop, a dorbel is a petty, nit-picking teacher. It’s derived from the name of an old French scholar named Nicolas d’Orbellis, who was well known as a supporter of the much-derided philosopher John Duns Scotus (whose followers were the original “dunces”).
An old English dialect word for someone who drawls or speaks indistinctly.
An untidy woman.
An insignificant or foolish man.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this term for “a woman of gross or corpulent habit” is derived from fusty, in the sense of something that’s gone off or gone stale.
Another of Shakespeare’s best put-downs, coined in Henry IV, Part 2: "Away, you scullion! You rampallion! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe," Falstaff exclaims. If not just a variation of fustilugs, he likely meant it to mean someone who stubbornly wastes time on worthless things.
An old Scots word for a swindling businessman, or someone who gets into debt and then flees.
An 18th century northern English word for someone who only ever seems to complain.
An old Irish word for a nosy, prying person who likes to interfere in other people’s business.
A gowpen is the bowl formed by cupping your hands together, while a gowpenful-o’-anything is “a contemptuous term applied to one who is a medley of everything absurd,” according to the English Dialect Dictionary.
Someone who only seems able to speak by shouting.
A leasing is an old word for an untruth or falsehood, making a leasing-monger or a leasing-maker a liar.
This is a 17th century term for a slacker. An idling, lazy good-for-nothing. Literally, someone who seems to spend all day in bed.
In the 16th century, lubberwort was the name of an imaginary plant that was supposed to cause sluggishness or stupidity, and ultimately came to be used as a nickname for a lethargic, fuzzy-minded person.
A dialect word for someone who not only talks a lot, but who seems to constantly swear.
Derived from the name of a stock character in medieval theatrical farces, a mumblecrust is a toothless beggar.
In Victorian English, doing quisby meant shirking from work or lazing around. A quisby was someone who did just that.
A visitor who outstays his or her welcome. Originally, someone who stays so late the dying coals in the fireplace would need to be raked over just to keep it burning.
Someone who lives beyond their means, or seems to spend extravagantly.
Saddling geese is a proverbially pointless exercise, so anyone who wastes their time doing it—namely, a saddle-goose—must be an imbecile.
Probably derived from scopperloit, an old English dialect word for a vacation or a break from work, a scobberlotcher is someone who never works hard.
Someone who turns up uninvited at a meal or party and expects to be fed.
When Laurence Sterne (author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy) met the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett (author of The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle) in Italy in 1764, he was amazed by how critical Smollett was of all the places he had visited. Smollett returned home and published his Travels Through France and Italy in 1766, and in response Sterne published his Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy two years later. Part-novel, part-travelogue, Sterne’s book featured a grumblingly quarrelsome character called Smelfungus, who was modeled on Smollett. The name soon came to be used of any buzz-killing faultfinder—an in particular someone who always finds fault in the places they visit.
Someone who constantly interrupts a conversation, typically only to contradict or correct someone else.
Sorning was the 16th century equivalent of mooching or sponging, and so a sorner is someone who unappreciatively lives off other people.
A heavy-footed, clumsy person.
In Greek mythology, one of The Twelve Labors of Hercules was to destroy the Stymphalian birds, a flock of monstrous, man-eating birds with metal beaks and feathers, who produced a stinking and highly toxic guano. A Stymphalist is someone who smells just as unpleasant.
Another of Shakespeare’s inventions directed at the gross, womanizing knight Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1. It’s probably derived from “tallow ketch,” literally “a barrel of fat.”
A finicky, fault-finding pedant.
An indecisive, time-wasting ditherer.
A 15th century word meaning “the son of a prostitute.”
Zoilus was a Greek grammarian who became known as one of the most vitriolic critics of Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Consequently, a zoilist is an overly-critical and judgmental nitpicker.
A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2021.