20 British Insults and Their Origins

The following is a guest post.

If there’s one thing the British can do with greater prolificacy than almost any other peoples, it is coining insults.

Just a flick through the latest Oxford English Dictionary will show you that the English language (BrE) is replete with some of the most wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) derogatory phrases in the history of human interaction.

Whether these are simply alternative ways of saying “idiot” or something far stronger, British insults share not only a varied history, but also a varied definition.

 

Here are 20 such insults, accompanied by their origins:

1. Twonk

The first of many entries on this list to mean “idiot,” the word “twonk” is thought to have originated in the 1980s as a blend of the words “twit” and “plonker.”

2. Prat

Initially a synonym of the word “buttocks” (16th century), the word “prat” is more commonly used to mean “idiot,” with this usage coming into existence in the 1960s.

3. Git

Used to describe someone as contemptible, the word “git” dates back to the 1940s and is a variant form of the word “get,” which was later used in the following Beatles lyric: “… curse Sir Walter Raleigh; he was such a stupid get.”

4. Wally

Meaning a “silly or inept person”, the origin of “wally” is somewhat disputed. Some believe it is merely a shortening of the given name Walter, while others suggest it is the result of Londoners mishearing the Scottish pronunciation of the word “valley.” Moreover, the story goes that it originated at a pop festival, after a person called Wally got lost in a huge crowd of people—prompting his name to be called out over a loudspeaker, much to the amusement of the crowd, who began chanting his name. Oddly, there is no indication that this story was the inspiration for the Where’s Wally books (Where’s Waldo in the United States). Either way, it is first attested from the 1960s.

5. Berk

Though a relatively soft insult, the word “berk” holds somewhat of a vulgar history. Attested from the 1930s, it is an abbreviation of “Berkshire hunt”—a well-known cockney rhyming slang phrase. It simply means “a stupid person.”

6. Bugger

Used as a general insult to mean “a contemptible person,” the word “bugger” dates back to the early 18th century. Similar in meaning to number 3 on this list, it can sometimes be used affectionately.

7. Plonker

The word “plonker” dates back to the mid nineteenth century, when it was used to describe “something large of its kind.” However, nowadays it simply refers to a foolish or inept person.

8. Pillock

Thought to have its roots in Scandinavian, the word “pillock” is derived from the archaic word “pilliock”, which was once another way of referring to a male member Today, it describes a stupid person.

9. Sod

Generally meaning “idiot” (though sometimes similar in meaning to “git”), the word “sod” is first attested from 1818.

10. Wanker

Though it has other, more sexually-descriptive uses, the word “wanker” typically means “contemptible person,” which fell into recorded usage from 1972.

11. Nitwit

The word “nitwit” is first attested from 1922 and is most likely derived from “nit” (meaning “nothing”).

12. Tyke

Traced back to the old Norse word “tík” (meaning “bitch”), the word “tyke” is generally used to describe a mischievous child.

13. Arsehole

Similar to the American variant “asshole”, the British version has its roots in the early 1400s, when it took the form of “arce-hoole.” Once again, it is another way of saying “contemptible person.”

14. Blighter

Similar in meaning to number 12 on this list, the word “blighter” is first attested from the early 19th century and is an extension of the word “blight” (as in “ruin”).

15. Twit

Having fallen into usage in 1934, the word “twit” gained popularity throughout the 50s and 60s and is used to describe a foolish and ineffectual person. It is possible that it derived from number 11 on this list.

16. Wazzock

Coined as recently as the 1980s, the origin of “wazzock” is unknown, even if its definition is crystal clear: a stupid person.

17. Divvy

Not to be confused with the verb “to divvy up,” the noun-form of “divvy” once again means “idiot” and probably derived from the word “divot.”

18. Piss pot

A symbolic phrase meaning “despicable person,” “piss pot” is first attested from the mid-15th century.

19. Muppet

The word “muppet” (as an insult) fell into usage in the 1990s through the not-so-surprising origin of Jim Henson’s puppet franchise. It is used to refer to a foolish person.

20. Minger

Used to describe an ugly or unattractive person, the word “minger” is also a product of the 1990s, having derived from the older word “minging”, meaning “foul-smelling”.

Update: 10 February 2014

Reader suggested entries:

21. Tosser

Used to refer to an obnoxious or pathetic person. Some argue it has the same meaning as ‘wanker’ and came from the word ‘tosspot.’

Laurence is a British expat living in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is a contributor for BBC America and writes a weekly column for Anglotopia. Having graduated from Lancaster University with a degree in English Language and Creative Writing, Laurence runs his own blog, Lost In The Pond, charting the endless cultural and linguistic differences between Britain and The United States.

Comments

    • says

      Hi, Naomi. I had included “twat” in my first draft, but felt—because of its fairly widespread usage in the U.S.—that it was difficult to distinguish it as a wholly British word. Moreover, the origin of the word is, sadly, utterly unknown.

      But I absolutely agree with you over the matter of pronunciation. The British way is so emphatic.

  1. Sarah says

    Tyke made the list but Tosser didn’t??? And Sod is not used meaning idiot, it is used exactly as you would use Bugger. These are not strong enough to be used as a real insult, they are used affectionately, eg, “you cheeky sod” “you little bugger”!

    • says

      Hi, Sarah. You’re certainly correct in saying that “sod” and “bugger” are used (not always, mind) affectionately, which is why I introduced this as a list of “wonderful (and not so wonderful) insults.” Moreover, I wanted to introduce some of the lesser known insults (like “tyke”) to non-British readers.

      You’re right about “tosser”, which would be a good addition to the list. The word is first recorded in 1977 and is widely thought to have derived – not so surprisingly – from “toss off.”

          • sarah says

            Typically sod would be used in the way I mentioned before, or to say “sod off”, you don’t usually hear “stupid sod”, it would more likely be “stupid wanker/idiot/tosser” etc. (in the North of England anyway!)

      • sarah says

        I personally like the word Tosser! One doesn’t hear “toss off” said like sod off or bugger off, which are both said to mean ‘go away’ or ‘no chance/no way’. For example, “make me a cup of tea”- “sod off, make your own!” or said like “you must be joking”, – “you can sod off”! Bugger is interchangeable in these examples. You don’t say “toss off” like this, Tosser (and tosspot) has the same meaning as wanker, (it’s rude) but confusingly you don’t ‘wank off”, but you do ‘toss off’ and you don’t ‘have a toss’, but you do ‘have a wank’ . Even more confusingly, you might not say “I’m going to have a toss”, but you would say “I don’t give a toss” about something, which means you don’t care! This might only make sense to people who already know what I mean, but I hope it’s clear!

  2. j e boles says

    A nit is a larval louse. Such larvum have very small brains. Thus, nitwit is a person with a tiny, almost invisible, brain.

  3. maggie says

    We knew minger and mingy as being cheapskate or pinch penny.

    Eons ago Tattle did an article on best brit insults. My favorite was ” I wish I could be as placid as you!”.

  4. Eamon Ryan says

    The word “asshole” probably originates in the Irish and Scottish word for donkey which is asal (pronounced ossal). This insult also has widespread use in the U.S. and may even have originated there among Celtic immigrants and later brought across the Atlantic through American movies.

  5. says

    I love ‘em all! Nothing like giving a good old British insult – all tongue in cheek and with a slap on the back, of course!
    I call my son a ‘wally’ in an affectionate way a lot (like when he puts his shoes on the wrong feet). He’ll pick up on it soon enough as friendly insult and it will be shared around Maryland elementary schools 2015, mark my words! ;)

  6. Valerie Pusey says

    Omitted is the original sexual connotation – of bugger and sod. They are a bit questionable – considered swearing for a long tie – I know I was never allowed to use them growing up.

  7. Valerie Pusey says

    Bugger and sod have origins in sexual connotation and considered swearing – I was never allowed to use them growing up! Not mentioned.

    • sarah says

      That’s true, I know what they actually mean, but I’ve only heard them used mostly affectionately. Although growing up, I wasn’t allowed to use them, or any swear word, but I would hear them from my Mum, rather than anything worse. Same with bloody- it was funny to hear it in Harry Potter since it is a swear word! Seems like these days it’s just used to add emphasis, which is how I use it too.

  8. Barry says

    During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those of us in show business used the term “prat-fall” to describe a mock fall on your tusch… usually as part of a comedy routine. It probably goes back in time to English theater. I think it is still used in show business.

  9. Jacqueline Fairbrass says

    Hah…delightful. When asked by my American hubby ‘what is a wally?’ I replied a large, green pickle. He now assumes I am calling him a pickled gherkin. Works for me. Teehee!

    • David Knowles says

      Yes, me too – I sometimes refer to people of generic stupidity as ‘numpties’! We may also use the term ‘cretin’ pejoratively. Some less salubrious folk might call someone who was in their view a fool or a sttupid miscreant a ‘knob’, ‘nob’ or a ‘bell-end’. Plenty more besides, I’m sure.

  10. AgTip says

    Too bad the etymology is so frackin’ sanitized. We know the root of many of these words comes from the usual bin of sexual and toilet and otherwise reference-dregs. This list might entertain if it weren’t couched in safe and euphemistic language.

  11. Elx says

    In East London we use cocksucker – means what it says, cunt – again the same, mustard – good, twink – young gay man

  12. says

    As an American, I was taught that “bloody” was among the worst swear words in Great Britain because it was a contraction for “by our Lady,” a blasphemy against the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is used so widely, and by every American who impersonates the Brits in comedy skits.

  13. lynne says

    been here almost thirty years and heard most of them although most i heard of were wally,bloody,sod,git etc..

  14. PAM says

    Used bloody since I was a child as well as “you bleeding fool.” Wasn’t considered bad language. There were far worse we couldn’t use. My brother was a wee bugger from the time I can remember. Never allowed to use the Lord’s name or anything more crass. BTW we’re Canadian.

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