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:
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Generally meaning “idiot” (though sometimes similar in meaning to “git”), the word “sod” is first attested from 1818.
Though it has other, more sexually-descriptive uses, the word “wanker” typically means “contemptible person,” which fell into recorded usage from 1972.
The word “nitwit” is first attested from 1922 and is most likely derived from “nit” (meaning “nothing”).
Traced back to the old Norse word “tík” (meaning “bitch”), the word “tyke” is generally used to describe a mischievous child.
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.”
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”).
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.
Coined as recently as the 1980s, the origin of “wazzock” is unknown, even if its definition is crystal clear: a stupid person.
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.
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.
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:
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.