The Origins Of 21 British Insults

From ‘barmy’ to ‘wazzock’, this is the (occasionally disputed) history of Britain’s best naughty words.


There are two main theories for how we came to say ‘barmy’. One interesting idea is that it is rooted in a psychiatric hospital called Barming that once existed in Maidstone, Kent. But it could also come from an Old English word for yeast – the implications being that a ‘barmy’ person’s brain is fermenting.

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This word for harmless idiot actually has a close relationship with a far, far more serious insult. It’s derived from the rhyming slang ‘Berkeley Hunt’ (or ‘Berkshire Hunt’). We’ll let you figure out the rest.

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This very mild insult is actually rooted in Arabic, where it literally means ‘daughter’. It was adopted by British servicemen in the Middle East around 1855.

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Conjuring images of gung-ho spitfire pilots gently reprimanding Jerry, it is thought that ‘blighter’ comes from the word ‘blight’, first used around 1611 by gardeners and farmers to describe general agricultural diseases (a meaning it still retains today).

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As in ‘all load of old…’. The word comes from the Old English ‘beallucas’, meaning, you guessed it, ‘testicles’.

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‘Bugger’ comes from the Medieval Latin word ‘Bulgarus’ - i.e. a Bulgarian - and a bigoted view of the sex lives of Eastern Orthodox Christians (or of the sect of heretics that was prominent there in the 11th century).

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Another phrase of widely disputed origins, one of the stronger theories is that is refers to the tail of a fox - which is called a brush - and the fact that ‘soft’ is a northern English term for stupid.

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According to the OED, the exact origins of Britain’s best-loved swear word is impossible to trace. However, it is believed to derive from a few different German words meaning variously ‘striking’, ‘rubbing’ and of course ‘having sex’.

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You can thank Scotland for this underused but satisfying insult. It’s a pronunciation of their old word ‘get’, which means ‘bastard’. The vowel softened as it travelled South - as, according to the Scots, do most things.

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First occurring in the late 13th century, ‘lunatic’ literally means ‘moon-sick’ in Old English - or ‘affected with periodic insanity, dependent on the changes of the moon’. It stems from the Old French ‘lunatique’.

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This word for disgusting is derived from the French ‘manqué’, which is the past participle of ‘manquer’, meaning ‘to fail’ (to take a bath, presumably).

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Beloved of cruel school girls on buses up and down the country, ‘minger’ is most likely derived from the Old Scots word ‘meng’, meaning ‘shit’.

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Samuel Johnson, who compiled England’s first proper dictionary, claimed ‘nincompoop’ came from the Latin phrase ‘non compos mentis’ (‘not of right mind’), and was originally a legal term. So this silly sounding word is actually quite an erudite way to insult someone.

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Between 1559 and 1575, the Archbishop of Canterbury was a man called Matthew Parker who had a tendency keep an eye on members of his clergy by ordering unpopular inquiries. It may be that he inspired the quaint insult still in use today, but it’s a shaky theory - the phrase first appeared in a 1890 edition of Belgravia Magazine.

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The Norwegians have a slang word for penis – ‘pillicock’. We just made it snappier.

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The most common theories about where ‘taking the piss’ comes from are rooted in the age when urine was used in Britain to dye wool. Urine was collected at the back of public houses and occasionally stolen, which may have been how the term became synonymous with ‘taking advantage’. Another theory is that those transporting urine up and down the canals were prone to lying about their cargo, leading to the association with dishonesty.

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Plonker, in the Only Fools And Horses sense, means idiot. But according to Eric Partridge in his third edition of A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1949), it was a ‘low’ slang word for penis that originated around 1917.

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‘Prat’ comes from the word ‘prattle’, which means to babble nonsense like a child, which itself came from the late Middle English word ‘prate’, which dates around 1375-1425.

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‘Giving the V’ began with longbowmen serving in the English and Welsh armies during the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. The legend goes that the French would cut off the arrow-shooting fingers of any bowmen they caught, so showing them to the enemy was a sign of defiance.

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Enjoying its heyday during the ‘lad’s mag’ culture of the 1990s, ‘wazzock’ is a Northern accented contraction of ‘wiseacre’, which means a ‘know-it-all’ - exactly what you are now you’ve read this article.

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Has this word came to be linked with masturbation is unknown, but its use in the general sense of meaning ‘contemptible person’ was first recorded in 1972.

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