12 Words For The Insufferably Vain
Vanity is more visible than ever in these selfie-saturated days, but being a preening peacock or conceited coxcomb has never been out of style. There are many older, out-of-use words for people who can only be pried away from a mirror with the jaws of life. So please use these words next time you have to describe a self-obsessed huff-snuff.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines this rhyming word as “a conceited fellow who gives himself airs and is quick to take offence; a braggart, hector.” The idea is that the person is huffing and snuffing in an exaggerated fashion with their nose in the air, outraged by any affront to their precious person. Like all reduplicative words—including namby-pamby and higgledy-piggledy—huff-snuff is awesome.
A glass-gazing ninnyhammer is always looking in a mirror. Shakespeare used the term in damning fashion in King Lear, describing: “A whorson glassegazing superfinicall rogue.” Ouch.
This word has had several meanings, mostly related to the weather, but in the late 1800s airish joined words such as blowhard and bloviate in the gaseous lexicon of invective. Mark Twain used the term in an 1874 letter, writing “I shall be as uppish & airish as any third-rate actor whose name is not made loud enough in the bills.” That’s about as uppy and airy as it gets.
The image of a nose in the air is hard to beat when it comes conceit, but this type of conceit is specific: It has to do with an overestimation of one’s intelligence. But this word has some other meanings that are less insulting. A nose-wise person sometimes simply has a quick wit. Other times they have a superior sense of smell.
No less than Shakespeare used this term—in Hamlet—via the memorable noun phrase “a very very pajock.” This word for a peacock or popinjay isn’t used much, but it’s usually an allusion to Shakespeare. Back in 1954, C. S. Lewis asked a very good question: “Have we no more gravity among us than to be so chafed by the taunt of a pajock?”
A Scottish word, the jaunty term vaunty has been around since the 1700s, describing vain varlets and boastful buffoons. Vaunty springs from an out-of-use sense of vaunt as a verb meaning to brag, and it’s related to vaunted.
7. AND 8. SKIPJACK AND PUPPYISH
Though skipjack sounds like an unreliable lumberjack, it has a slightly less rugged meaning that is worth quoting the OED in full: “A pert shallow-brained fellow; a puppy, a whipper-snapper; a conceited fop or dandy.” (Fun fact: Puppy has sometimes been a word for an attention hog. Novelist Frances Burney used the term in a 1775 letter: “He is conceited, self-sufficient, and puppyish.”)
This is a term from the U.S. south for someone who has gotten not only too big for their britches, but too big for the whole britches store, figuratively. The biggity are big-headed.
10. GET ONE'S SKULL SWELLED
Speaking of major-league melons, Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists this vivid variation of the idiom “have a big head.” This massive slang dictionary includes an 1886 use in The Policeman’s Lantern by James Greenwood: “Strange how some men get their skulls swelled when they get on the force.”
This term plays on older meaning of side as referring to arrogance and general full-of-yourself-ness. People would say an arrogant jerk was putting on side. From there, you could say the vain or puffed-up are sidey.
This sibling of whipper-snapper has a slightly different sense. Both words are dismissive of youths, but snipper-snapper also has a suggestion of conceitedness, as seen in a definition in an 1854 glossary compiled by A.E. Baker: “Snipper-snapper, a small, insignificant, effeminate, self-conceited young man.” This term is apparently a little older than whipper-snapper, but it hasn’t fared as well in the Darwinian lexical race.