11 Words for People Who Are Bad At What They Do

What to call the inept, incompetent, and inferior

Definition: an inferior poet

There are many things of which it is said “you can never have too many,” and listed among these should be “words for an inferior poet.” Our language is infested with such, and if poetaster does not suit your fancy, you may choose from balladmonger, rhymester, versifier, poeticule, bardlet, poetling, or sonneteer.

Such debates aside, Niven's notes are succinct, helpful, and unobtrusive, as well as augmented by a glossary of key names in the back of the book. Only once do they go astray, in his much-remarked gloss of Philip Larkin as a 'hard-right poetaster and trad jazz critic' - yet this is consonant with Bunting's own disdain for the poet ('It isn't so easy to tell Larkin from a corpse’).
— Don Share, PN Review, Jan/Feb. 2023

horse doctor

Definition: an inadequately trained or incompetent doctor

Horse doctor has been used to refer to a doctor who treats horses since at least the 17th century. The pejorative sense, applied to an incompetent physician who treats humans, appears to have begun being used in the 19th century, and was somewhat more common in the early 20th century than it is now (Groucho Marx’s famous character in the 1937 film A Day at the Races, Hugo Z. Hackenbush, is a literal horse doctor, masquerading as a legit physician).

Before Scott was viewed as a plague of medical bills and extra staff scheduling in order to shuttle him from one cut-rate horse doctor to another. Before the bean-counters stepped in and collectively wished for a Corrections version of "terminal velocity"-where Scott would crash into the earth and spare them all the headache and high costs and just die already.
— T M Redd Warren, J Journal (New York City, NY), Fall 2019

patzers gonna patz

Definition: an inept chess player

Patzer is thought to have come from the German word patzer (“a blunderer”), which itself is from patzen (“to blunder”). It is a fairly recent addition to our language, with no evidence of use prior to the middle of the 20th century. A similarly obscure term for a poor chess player, wood-pusher, has been in use since the 19th century, and, at least for some while, was also used to refer to checker players of some small degree of skill.

Don't tell Ridgedale High School students chess is a boring game. The 30 young people in the chess club will unleash a five-minute blitz and expose you as a patzer in quick fashion.
Marion Star (Marion, OH), 9 Mar. 2017


Definition: one that does bungling makeshift work; especially: an incompetent writer

Fun fact: botch may have the meaning of “to do something badly” (when used as a verb) or “an inflammatory sore” (when used as a noun). A botcher is someone who does something badly (especially a writer), and does not have anything to do with sores, inflammatory or otherwise.

Before the election the Cons boasted to everyone that they were the best-prepared Government-inwaiting, ever. In power Cameron's a bumbler, a bungler, a botcher. He's a clumsy if enthusiastic amateur.
— Kevin Maguire, The Daily Mirror (London, Eng.), 15 Jun. 2011


Definition: an inexperienced or incompetent boxer

We’re not certain where palooka comes from; it appears to have first appeared in print in 1923, and, although it has some additional meanings, was primarily used to refer to a low-grade boxer. A column by Damon Runyon in that year mentions that palooka was “a new word, much used lately to describe what was formerly called a ‘hit-out,’ a ‘sucker,’ a ‘bohunk,’ a ‘pushover,’” and then goes on to explain that “all of these words mean a very poor fighter.” You now have enough 1920s slang terms for boxer to last a fortnight, at least.

Anyway, the very minute some palooka grabs himself the crown of his particular division, he pulls the snobbish stuff on his old playmates and promptly refuses to mingle with ‘em any longer. He yearns to associate only with those in the upper strata of pugdom.
—Frank Menke, The Evening Repository (Canton, OH), 29 Mar., 1923


Definition: an innocuously inept and futile person in public office

Don’t bother going in search of an amusing etymology for the word throttlebottom; it comes from the name of a character in Of Thee I Sing, a 1931 musical with a book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind and music by George and Ira Gershwin (the inept vice-presidential candidate is named Alexander Throttlebottom). The name proved popular, and began to be used as a noun, joining the ranks of kleptocrat, highbinder, and carpetbagger in the pantheon of ‘mean words for political figures.’

Aggressive heads of business organizations sometimes like to surround themselves with these Throttlebottoms on the reasonable assumption “With guys like that around me I have to look good—if only by contrast.”
—Hal Boyle, Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, NE), 28 Aug., 1956

POLITICAL PUTDOWNS: For when 'lowdown crook' isn't specific enough


Definition: a driver especially of a cab or coach; specifically: one who drives fast or recklessly

Jehu is a biblical word, taken from the name of a king of Israel, who is mentioned in 2 Kings ix: “the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he driveth furiously.” This word is not often encountered, but when it is may be applied generally to the driver of a cab, or also to any driver who operates his vehicle in a reckless fashion.

And so we are all Jehus wringing our smooth hands and imagining the horror of navigating for two entire days some 22,000 miles of dreaded "surface streets," an L.A.-ism that seems to place our 650-mile freeway system in the sky.
— John Bogert, Daily Breeze (Torrance, CA), 13 Jul. 2011

MORE TO EXPLORE: 11 Words from the Bible You Didn't Know Were Biblical

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Definition: an inferior or contemptible critic

Criticaster has been an insult in the quivers of people who felt they were unduly maligned by critics since the middle of the 17th century. The suffix -aster (“one that is inferior or not genuine”) comes from a Latin suffix which denotes something that has a partial resemblance.

No one could establish when the still life had been stolen (or "improved," according to a wisecracking criticaster), but the forgery was discovered toward the end of the American Booksellers' Conference, held every fall in New York City.
— Hernan Diaz, Harper’s Magazine, Mar. 2023

row of boxwood bushes

Definition: an incompetent performer or small-time operator; a baseball player in a small-time league

[Bush league](/dictionary/bush+ league) first came into use at the very beginning of the 20th century, initially referring to a minor league in baseball (especially one that was of inferior quality). Within a few years the word had broadened a bit, and was being used as an adjective, with the general meaning “belonging to an inferior class or group of its kind.” Bush leaguer had a similar trajectory, starting off referring specifically to a baseball player, and quickly being used to refer to inferior performers in a variety of fields.

Ronda has read more books than anyone I have ever met, and - more to the point - he has let them percolate through his mind and heart and soul, and inform his character and mature outlook. I like to think of myself as a reasonably well-read person, but the fact is that I am really nothing more than a bush-leaguer, and I find myself furtively jotting down book titles and feeling waves of self-disappointment as I listen to him weave lovely conversational tapestries in every direction - effortlessly, it would seem.
Bismarck Tribune (Bismarck, ND), 19 May 2013

a philogaster reading

Definition: an incompetent philologist

How often are you called up to deliver a cutting and snide remark to a philologist (“one who studies language”)? Not very often. But when that point does come, you want to be prepared. Having philologaster at your disposal at that moment is the lexical equivalent of bringing a knife to a water-gun fight.

In the critique which I am speaking of, regardless of anything but facts and a scientific treatment of facts, I passed in review a motley cluster of philologists, semi-philologists, and entire philologasters.
—Fitzedward Hall, Modern English, 1873


Definition: an inferior racehorse

All of the words on this list have so far been concerned with people who are in some way incompetent in, or ill-suited to, their profession. Putting aside such speciesism for a moment, let us look at an animal who is bad at its job. The humble plater takes its name from the fact that it only competes in plate races (which are races in which the contestants compete for fixed value prizes, rather than for stakes). From this designation the meaning of plater extended to be applied to an racehorse of an inferior grade.

When a horse wins four or more races at the same track he is regarded as a course specialist, and a certain affection for him develops among regular racegoers. Roy Rocket adds to it by being an attractive grey. Nevertheless, he is a 55-rated horse, little better than a selling plater. His last winning mark is a more respectable 67; he's been on a long losing run since then.
— Jim Beavis, The Post (Bristol, Eng.), 29 Jun. 2019

To the horse's credit, though, it doesn't know what money is.

dunce caps in an old time classroom

Muttonheads, jobbernowls, and other nincompoops