Ever since people learned how to start making words, they started using them to describe each other. Of course while we all have names, many of us have also been subjected at one time or another to nicknames. These words can be used endearingly, or just in fun between friends, but they aren’t always innocent. Nicknames can also be used to describe huge swathes of people in one go and sometimes the meaning behind the words isn’t always pleasant. On the other hand, sometimes words are used expressly with the intent to be insulting and yet their original meaning was largely benign. The world of words is a strange place indeed.
Back in the old sailing days before modern medical science, sailors constantly feared for their lives, not so much from the ocean but from the threat of scurvy. See, at the time scurvy was causing sailors to get really sick and the deaths were causing a lot of problems. Multiple doctors tried various different methods in an attempt to nail down the problem, but none had success until Gilbert Blane pored over documents collected by a previous doctor named James Cook. After thorough analysis he concluded that the sailors should be issued limes on their journey and before long the problem was basically solved. As it turns out scurvy wasn’t a specific disease as it was simply what happens when you don’t have enough vitamin C and consuming citrus fruit juice solved the problem quite nicely. This of course led to the sailors being known as “limeys” and hence the term was born. Of course, it seems quite absurd that the term sometimes is used in a derogatory manner, as learning how to beat scurvy seems like a pretty smart thing to do.
Ragamuffin is one of the strangest sounding words out there and is often used as a term of endearment for small children. Sometimes it is used if their clothes look particularly dirty or patchy, after all, it has the word rag right there right? And some other people basically use it to describe someone who is ragged or unkempt in appearance. However, according to etymologists, you are essentially calling them the devil. See, one etymologist traced what the roots of the word meant at the time and found that they both led to terms for the devil. Raggamoffyn was believed to be a spelling for a word used in old plays involving the father of all lies, the ridiculous name presumably making it easier to mock him. In some cultures the devil could appear as a ragged or unkempt man and ragman is also a term sometimes used for Satan. Now, you might still think the muffin part sounds absurd, but it turns out that Auld Muffy was another name for that pitchfork wielding menace as well.
Many people use the word gypsy as slang for anyone who wanders around and doesn’t have a real home to call their own. However, the word was originally used to describe a very specific group of nomads known also as the Romani and first started to appear in Asia and Europe about one millennia ago. They kept little in the way of written records so their true origins are shrouded in mystery, but the stories go that they were beggars claiming to have left Egypt as penance after abandoning their Christian faith and some even claimed that their ancient relatives had not helped Jesus and they needed to make amends. Due to people thinking they were of Egyptian origin, the name gypsies came into common use. Unfortunately, many gypsies were soon accused of various crimes including theft and some people especially didn’t trust them due to their lack of Christian faith. Before long gypsies were looked down on as dirty beggars and thieves. Strangely though, while the wanderer image has stuck with the word, gypsy is rarely ever used as an insult anymore.
While perhaps not as common as it once was, it’s still not unheard of to call a kid a “little scamp”. Usually it’s used to refer to a kid who’s being kind of mischievous, but in a clever way that’s more endearing than actually annoying as little children often are. However, this seemingly benign word does not have the most innocent origins. Now, etymologically its roots started with a word that mean to run away and this caused some people to misinterpret it as meaning to run from a battlefield. There is scant evidence for the last part of the theory though. More likely, many attribute it originally as a term for a highway robber, likely because they could steal and then “scamper” away. So perhaps you don’t want to call your kid a scamp, unless your retirement plan is whatever your kid can jack from a car at the stoplight.
6. Whiz Kid.
Today, the term is hardly used anymore, but when it is it refers to a person who’s really smart and successful at a really young age. It is sometimes also just used to refer to any kid who shows high levels of genius, however, it has rather odd origins. Originally the term was coined to refer to just ten people in the United States, former genius members of the Army-Air Force who had worked during World War II in logistical planning. They went to work at Ford in the management sector and were originally called “quiz kids” because they fired off lots of questions so they could understand the business. The group themselves turned it into whiz kids to make them sound better and as their genius improved everything around them, eventually the term took on positive connotations. Their success is evident by the fact that it is now a generic term for a young person who is really, really smart.
Who hasn’t heard someone call another person a nimrod? While this insult pretty much died out after the 90’s, there was a time where you couldn’t swing a cat without hearing it. And of course, if you swung the cat into something, you’d likely hear a lot more than just a strange word. For a time though, it was a very common insult. Of course, the common trope that also went around in the late 90’s as the word died out of fashion is that it meant “great hunter” and was thus therefore a very silly insult. However, the truth is even stranger. Nimrod is the name of a Biblical king who features very heavily in Hebrew legends. Unfortunately, there are so many different versions of the legend that it is hard to know which is supposed to be the correct one. They do all have some of the same basic elements though, Nimrod is a mighty king and hunter who worships false idols and behaves in a tyrannical manner. While some legends depict him as more or less reasonable, he is still always on the wrong side of history and doesn’t follow God’s plan, at least at first. Now, while this means nimrod makes more sense as an insulting term, using it to describe someone as foolish or stupid doesn’t make much sense. Nimrod would be a much more accurate term to describe someone like say, Kim Il Sung, or Pol Pot.
Most people who use the term tomboy today are referring to a girl who is into “guy things”. While not as popular an expression as it used to be, not long ago it was quite common to call a girl who eschewed dolls in favor of playing football and hiking a “tomboy”. However, the funny thing is that tomboy didn’t even originally refer to girls at all. When first used, tomboy was the 1500’s version of calling someone a drunken frat boy. In other words, the type of guy who spent all his time drinking, hitting on girls and thought he was the best thing in the universe. Eventually, the phrase started to shift toward women and took on more derogatory connotations. This is unsurprising as with the double standards in gender equality at the time, a woman who behaved in such a manner would likely be considered quite beyond what was “lady-like”. According to one etymologist the word tom can also refer to someone who engages in sexual acts for money, making this word pretty insulting to women no matter how you look at it.
We’ve all heard the term brat many times. Usually it’s used to refer to one of those kids who clearly get everything they want from their parents and can get away with anything they want. This has been the common usage of the word for quite awhile now, but it has a strange history. For starters, some languages, such as Russian have a similar term that means something different. While the Russian word is pronounced like the first half of bratwurst, it simply means brother. While etymologists are uncertain of its origins, many believe that the word brat originally referred to the children of beggars. The etymological trace suggests that the original root the word came from referred to clothes that were in poor repair, which would explain the connection to poor children. While some scholars seem to suggest different definitions, for instance that it was a word to refer to all children; it’s likely that the word evolved multiple times over the course of history.
When you hear the term goon you probably think of a couple hired toughs whose job it is to protect their boss, like Rocky’s henchman Mugsy in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. However, originally goon really just meant that someone was stupid. It turns out though, that the word has had a lot of history to change its meaning. See, starting in the late 1800’s the Popeye comic was first invented and it included a character called Alice the Goon. This character was a giant woman and her people were enslaved by a Sea Hag to do henchman type work for her. The popularity of the comic strip led to Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers naming their radio program the “Goon Show”, inadvertently furthering the new definition of the word. This word has unfortunately only been seen in an increasingly negative light, as some prisoners of war during World War II used to term to mock German soldiers.
If you’ve ever tuned into to a major news network, there’s a good chance you’ve heard a pundit use the word “wonk”. This word is usually used to mean someone who is very learned in some specific subject, usually politically related. Due to politics being a fairly unpopular subject and the fact that those characteristic of the word tend to be rather obsessive, it often has negative connotations. While normally it is a nickname, it’s meaning changes if it takes a different form. For example, wonky or wonkiness usually refers to something that is broken, not made properly or not working as it should be. The silliest thing about this word though, is that unlike many on the list it doesn’t have a definitive origin. As it turns out the people who study words say that this one was basically just an invented word. It wasn’t derived from any word with a previous meaning, some people simply thought it sounded like it would be a fun word to describe boring people obsessed with trivial, bureaucratic minutia and started using it. That’s the best thing about language, it evolves to suit our needs and means what we need it to mean.