In the past few months, I’ve added at least 50 new books to the SDCL’s collection and some of them are real gems. To highlight these terrific texts, I thought I’d create a new feature on The Butter Lamb: Text Tuesday. Welcome to the first installment.
This week’s text is Wicked Words: A Treasury of Curses, Insults, Put-Downs, and Other Formerly Unprintable Terms from Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present by Hugh Rawson (1989). That’s a long title and it’s a subtle indicator of the wordiness one finds between its covers. That’s not a complaint, for in addition to being rightly described as a “treasury” (defined in one sense as “a collection or supply of excellent or highly prized writings, works of art, etc), the book should be treasured for its breadth and thoroughness. (The entry for fuck is 10 nearly 10 fucking pages!)
The one part of the title I might quibble with, though, is the word “unprintable.” Yes, some of the words in the book certainly were unprintable at one time. Some still are. I’m not sure, however, if that descriptor applies to every entry in the book. There are plenty (e.g., cad, cadger, cannon fodder, carpetbagger, cesspool, charlatan, cult, etc … and that’s just the words that begin with C!) that don’t seem all that wicked and/or offensive. Then again, I could be wrong. Maybe cad was an unprintable and wicked word back in the day. What do I know?
Speaking of the words, Wicked Words does a fine job of listing “all the classic disparaging terms” for men and women, people of particular nationalities, and those (un)fortunate enough to have a denigrated occupation. Or, to put it another way, Wicked Words contains all of the classist, racist, and sexist terms your chud of an uncle uses on Thanksgiving after he’s had one too many bottles of Michelob. This is NOT what makes the book shine. What does is Rawson’s scholarship. To see what I mean, check out the following excerpt from the book’s introduction:
The messages conveyed by “bad” words are of three types: the profane, the obscene, and the insulting. Each represents a different form of abuse. Profanity abuses sacred belief: it is irreligious, by definition and by origin, coming from the Latin pro (before, outside) + fanum (temple). Obscenity abuses the body, the temple of the self: It derives from the Latin obscenus, probably from caenum (filth). Obscenity includes pornography, from the Greek skatos (dung, shit) + logy (the science or study of). Insult abuses other individuals, typically in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, political persuasion, sex, mental abilities, or physical peculiarities. It comes from the Latin insultare (to leap upon).
Damn. To paraphrase Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park, “Bet you’ll never look at insults the same way again.”
Any knucklehead can put together a list of blue or naughty words, and then offer a clumsy, haphazard definition for each. Rawson, thankfully, takes the time to give his readers so much more: rich definitions, etymologies, and examples of usage from literature, news sources, and more. But hey, don’t take my word for it. Check out the following entries of some words that, while maybe not (or no longer) “wicked,” were at least new to me.
Note: I’m just offering brief snippets here. To see the entries in their entirety, check out the book.
Clinchpoop. A boor. (This 16th century term of contempt is obsolete, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.) In theory, clinchpoop probably should be reserved for drunken mariners and other seagoing boors.
Gascon. A braggart, one who indulges in extravagant boasting. This is an ethnic slur, alluding to the inhabitants of Gascony in southwestern France. They were regarded as great boasters from at least the 18th century.
Goth. A rude, uncivilized person, especially one who goes out of his way to destroy artworks and other hallmarks of high culture. The Goths, a Germanic people who descended on the Roman Empire in the early part of the Christian era, were divided into two main branches, the East Goths, or Ostrogoths, and the West Goths, or Visigoths. See also Barbarian and Vandal. [Note: Rawson says nothing about people who dress in all black, listen to sad and dour music, and are obsessed with finality and death.]
Hockey (hocky). Variously: semen, excrement, nonsense. The origin of this term is not known; it may come from hokum. If its meaning of nonsense really is the original one, then hockey is an exception among words of this sort, which ordinarily evolve in the opposite direction. Hockey seems fairly euphemistic, nevertheless, it has been tabooed in some square circles, especially in the southern United States.
Mossback. An extreme conservative or, as an adjective, one who acts that way. The epithet first appeared as mossyback during the Civil War when it was applied to the Southerners who fled in the woods or swamps to escape conscription into the Confederate Army. Some of them seemed to have remained hidden so long that moss grew on their backs.
Pelican. An old car or jalopy, a big eater or glutton, a tough woman or prostitute. The last sense is the least common and may have been limited to New Orleans, the largest city in the Pelican State.
Runnion (ronion, ronyon). An old insult for a woman that warrants revival if only because no one is sure exactly what it means. Lexicographers have more or less thrown up their hands at this. The Oxford English Dictionary simply calls it “an abusive term applied to a woman.” Samuel Johnson treated the different spellings as different words, defining ronion as ” a fat bulky woman” and runnion as “A paltry scurvy wretch.”
Tout. An aggressive purveyor of frequently erroneous information, especially at a racetrack; as a verb, to solicit or to sell in a pushy way. The word is underworld slang from the 18th century (a tout originally was a lookout) and it has never escaped its seamy origins.
Xanthippe. A bad-tempered woman, a scold; from the name of the wife of Socrates, who got such bad press from ancient writers that her name became generic for “shrew.” [Ouch – Ed.] It has been suggested that 1) because of Xanthippe, Socrates didn’t really mind having to take hemlock, [Again, ouch – Ed.] and 2) the poor woman may have been driven around the bend by having a philosopher for a husband.