9 (Mostly) Polite Words for the Uncouth
Where have people’s manners gone? No one likes a cell-yeller or Facebook-oversharer, but complaints about other people’s couth—or lack thereof—are older than elderly Muppets yelling from a balcony. People have different ideas of what’s rude or unmannered, and they’ve been expressing those ideas for centuries. Here’s a bunch of old, out-of-use words for someone who—to use more old-fashioned words—is ungentlemanly or rough-hewn, at least according to the hoity-toity.
Welcome to your new favorite word. Clenchpoop (or clinchpoop) sounds like it describes a person who’s uptight or perhaps constipated—but the dry Oxford English Dictionary definition tells a different tale: “A term of contempt for one considered wanting in gentlemanly breeding.” The etymology is uncertain, but it appears to have something to do with the poop deck of a boat. The similarity to nincompoop is a bonus.
This Scottish term, found in print since the 1500s, is a specific type of uncouth person: a roughneck or hooligan. This is a variation of kemp, an older word for a big brawler who might be a professional boxer or wrestler.
English is famously redundant, spitting out unnecessary words every day—but unnecessary doesn’t mean without charm. The word rabble should pretty much cover the unwashed masses, but apparently not, because rabblement has been around since the 1500s. This is an old-fashioned word, but it does show up now and again these days. A recent Boston Globe article makes good use of the term, describing a character who “…dresses in Patagonia and dreams of splendiferous, tasteful wealth, reflected in his desire for a house in a gated community to keep the rabblement out.”
At the risk of sounding pedantic, this word’s spelling conceals its origin: it’s an adjective form of peasant. An OED example from 1613 is soaked in disgust: “To defile my fingers with such a Pezantique Fugitiue, who is ashamed of his Fathers name.”
An oik has been a pezantic fellow since the early 1900s. The origin is uncertain, but there is a related derogatory term for a working-class person: oikman. Here’s a 1917 example from Douglas Goldring’s novel The Fortune: “He might herd with the outcast ‘Oicks’ who went in for ‘cornstalking’ or displayed provincial accents whilst ogling barmaids in George Street saloons.” By the way, cornstalking is a fairly uncouth behavior: a cornstalk is a tall person, and cornstalking implies stretching yourself upwards in an attempt to eavesdrop.
This Australian word originally applied to a type of eucalyptus tree or the bark from that tree, and those uses are found from the early 1800s on. Later, the term stuck to a person who was uncouth in the sense of being a hick, yokel, or hillbilly; presumably, such folks spent nearly as much time amongst trees as Tarzan. As this 1833 use from New South Wales Magazine shows, this word works well as a self-deprecating adjective: “The workmanship of which I beg you will not scrutinize, as I am but, to use a colonial expression, ‘a stringy-bark carpenter.’”
Porterly is derived from porter, a person who schleps luggage, usually at a hotel or airport. So the fact that this word ended up meaning, as the OED defines it, “uncouth, vulgar, rude,” betrays a pretty crappy attitude toward luggage-luggers. That attitude reverse-shines through this 1765 OED example, which drips with contempt: “His Language was as base, foul, and porterly, as ever was heard at Billingsgate.”
Cocktail is well known as a word for fancy drinks, but it also once meant a person who wasn’t fancy at all. The breeding-centric meanings of this word originated with horseracing: a cocktail was a horse whose parentage was less than thoroughbred. From there, the term spread to people who weren’t from the upper crust of society, but pretended they were. An 1854 use by William Thackeray is almost a definition: “Such a selfish, insolent, coxcomb as that, such a cocktail.”
This Australian word may be derived from the name Larry, but it doesn’t have a definitive origin. What is known is that a larrikin is a hooligan, particularly a young one. The first known use, from an 1868 letter by H.W. Harper, conveys a timeless attitude toward larrikins: “We are beset with larrikins, who lurk about in the darkness and deliver every sort of attack on the walls and roof with stones and sticks.”