A Handy Guide to Ruffians, Rapscallions, Cads & More

22 Charming Words for Nasty People


Definition:

a brutal person; bully

Examples:

"'You try me too much. A ruffian - a common brawling ruffian - that's what you have become.'" - Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World, 1912

"Tintin always moves (unless he's been knocked out by some ruffian). Motion is his appeal and the reason Steven Spielberg's representation rings true." - Matt Easton, The Michigan Daily, January 4, 2012

About the Word:

Ruffians specialize in roughness, and between the 16th and 18th centuries, they were also synonymous with pimps - men who solicit clients for prostitutes.

Definition:

a captious critic

Examples:

"Let the grumbling smellfungi of this world, who cultivate taste among books, cobwebs, and spiders, rail at the extravagance of the age." - Washington Irving (writing as Anthony Evergreen), Salmagundi, 1820

About the Word:

Our language contains a glorious profusion of words for critics of all stripes. We have terms for an inferior critic (criticaster), a jealous critic (zoilus), and a severe critic (aristarch). None of them has quite the same bite as smellfungus, a lovely morsel of an insult, which comes from the name of a character in Laurence Sterne's 1768 book, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy.

Definition:

a mischievous and often morally corrupt person

Examples:

"The captain of Company L refused to recognize us; said we were deserters, and traitors, and scalawags; and when he drew rations for Company L from the commissary, he wouldn't give us any." - Jack London, The Road, 1907

"When times are good, the public generally prefers a scalawag. Clinton was the perfect president for the '90s boom years. Warren Harding would have been a great fit with the boom of the '20s. He drank. He played cards. He snuck out of the White House to go to girlie shows." - Bill Bonner, The Market Oracle, December 20, 2011

About the Word:

Also spelled scallywag, this term may originally have referred to an animal of very little value. After the Civil War, scalawag came to describe a white Southerner acting in support of reconstruction governments, often in pursuit of private gain; it was used to insult Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.

The origin of scalawag is unknown, but one theory suggests there's a link to the Scottish scoloc, a first-born son given to the Church to educate.

Definition:

a tricky deceitful fellow

Examples:

"A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave ..." - William Shakespeare, King Lear, 1605-6

"A pro-Romney political action committee, Restore Our Future, spent more than $4 million ensuring that Iowans couldn't watch 10 minutes of television without being assaulted by an ad explaining why Gingrich was a scoundrel, a knave, a hack, a goon or - shudder - a closet liberal." - Eugene Robinson, The Washington Post, January 4, 2012

About the Word:

The Bard was particularly fond of the word knave - it crops up throughout his plays. One of the oldest words in English, knave comes the Old English cnafa, meaning "boy" or "male servant."

Definition:

rascal; an idle worthless person

Examples:

"The devil fetch ye, ye ragamuffin rapscallions; ye are all asleep. Stop snoring, ye sleepers, and pull." - Herman Melville, Moby Dick, 1851

"In his personal life [Christopher Hitchens] was no less the 'rapscallion iconoclast,' as historian Douglas Brinkley once described him. He left his pregnant first wife for another woman." - Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times, December 15, 2011

About the Word:

There are no scallions in rapscallion. Rapscallion is an alteration of rascallion, which is itself an irregular formation of rascal, a term born in an Old French dialect word meaning "to scrape, clean off."

Definition:

a seeming friend who is secretly an enemy

Examples:

"One whose hard heart is button'd up with steel;A fiend, a fury, pitiless and rough;A wolf, nay, worse, a fellow all in buff;A back-friend, a shoulder-clapper, one that countermandsThe passages of alleys, creeks and narrow lands."- William Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors, 1623

About the Word:

The enemy posing as a friend has been a common enough creature that we have had a word for it for five hundred years or so. More recently, we’ve seen a rise in usage of the portmanteau frenemy ("one who pretends to be a friend but is actually an enemy.")

Although frenemy is of far more recent vintage than backfriend, it is not a creation of the 21st century. Frenemy can be found as far back as 1939, when an article in the August Chronicle stated "A frenemy is someone who's your friend today, but may be your enemy tomorrow."

Definition:

an insignificant anonymous writer

Examples:

"Rail away, my little libellous anonymuncule." - W. Lynd, The Gentleman's Magazine, Sept., 1882

About the Word:

We often hear today of the many ways that the Internet has changed social discourse, some number of which are exaggerated. One thing that the Internet has certainly done is to give rise to a burgeoning class of anonymuncules. We are inundated with such creatures, both in the comment sections of articles published on the web, and through various forms of social media, such as Twitter.

The word is a blend of anonymous and homunculus ("a little man").

Definition:

a morally corrupt or depraved person

Examples:

"You are a heartless reprobate, sir; a heartless, thankless, good-for-nothing reprobate. I have done with you. You are my son; that I cannot help - but you shall have no more part or parcel in me as my child, nor I in you as your father." - Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, 1857

"She was den mother to the city's pale-skinned night crawlers, punks, dudes pushing faux decadence and your garden-variety reprobate, and she has done it in style, with a swagger that can only be earned from experience." - Brett Callwood, Detroit Metro Times, January 11, 2012

About the Word:

Reprobate comes from the Latin reprobare, meaning "to disapprove" or "to condemn." The word is frequently used in the King James Version of the Bible to describe someone who understands God's will but chooses to not follow it.

Definition:

a credulous person; especially : one who believes everything he or she hears

Examples:

"The Gobemouche abounds in clubs, coffee-houses, Capel Courts, Bellamy's, and all old women's tea-parties." - Punch, or the London Charivari, 1857

Gobemouche is evidence that certain unpleasant things, when cloaked in the veneer of French, can sound rather pleasant.

About the Word:

The word rolls off the tongue easily, and sounds quite lovely; however, if we look at the etymology it more or less translates to "fly gulper" (from the French gober, meaning "to swallow whole", and mouche, meaning "fly").

Definition:

a spoiled child

Examples:

"O, you are a meere mammothrept in judgement then." - Ben Jonson, The Workes of Beniamin Ionson, 1616

About the Word:

Mammothrept comes to the English language from the Greek word mammothreptos, which means, delightfully enough, "child brought up by his grandmother".

It hardly matters whether children raised by a grandmother are indeed more likely to be spoiled; such a fine and descriptive word as mammothrept deserves to be used to describe spoiled children regardless of who has raised them.

Definition:

a man who acts with deliberate disregard for another's feelings or rights

Examples:

"'You low cad! You ought to be ducked in the horsepond, you rotter!'" - James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922

"Why are we so wild for [Mad Men's Don] Draper? By any measure, the character's a cad. He constantly cheats on his wife. He skips town for weeks and won't write or call. He doesn't talk much, and anesthetizes any feelings with copious amounts of booze." - Katie Baker, TheDailyBeast.com, August 17, 2009

About the Word:

One of the few gender-specific terms on this list, cad is a shortening of caddie, a Scottish term for one who waits around for odd jobs. (This sense of the term eventually developed into the golfing sense of caddie.) These days, cad is commonly linked to romantic misbehavior.

Definition:

a bigoted adherent to exposed but customary error

Examples:

"A tough carrion, she draws like a Whirl-pool, and would kill a Man as easily as a Cat sucks the breath of a Child: Go thy ways old Mumpsimus, the mark's in thy mouth still." - Thomas Duffett, Psyche Debauch'd, 1678

About the Word:

The ostensible origin of mumpsimus is that long ago there was an illiterate priest who was in the habit of using this word when saying mass, rather than the correct Latin word sumpsimus (which means "we have taken"). When confronted with this error, the priest was reported to have said that he refused to change his old mumpsimus for the new sumpsimus offered by his critic.

Definition:

a reckless unprincipled person; an incorrigible rascal

Examples:

"He refused ever to work, borrowed money on his father's credit, which he never returned, passed bad checks; was, in short, an out-and-out good-for-nothing scapegrace." - Helen Warburton, "Jerry" in The Smart Set, January 1916

"[Graham] Greene, [Pico] Iyer wrote ... was 'a self-styled scapegrace' who openly confessed in his works to an endless list of 'treacheries and transgressions' and stirred compassion in his readers both for his undisguised grief at his own failings and for his efforts to forgive both betrayers and the betrayed." - Liesl Schillinger, New York Times, December 30, 2011

About the Word:

Scapegrace may come from the notion of escaping (scape meaning "to escape") the grace of God. However serious that sounds, scapegrace, like scamp, is often used lightheartedly.

Definition:

a stupid awkward person

Examples:

"It's this that marks our senseless tawpies, And shames us a' as Gillygaupies" - Hector MacNeill, Bygane Times, and Late Come Changes, 1811

About the Word:

It is an indisputable fact that some people are stupid, and we have a great number of words with which to describe them (birdbrain, blockhead, dummy, etc.). A further number of people are awkward, and we likewise have many words to choose from when describing them (bungler, klutz, and so on).

But what of the person who manages to be both stupid and awkward? Well, that person is a gillygaupus. Now you know.

Definition:

a usually young man who does noisy and violent things as part of a group or gang; hoodlum

Examples:

"When Billy Windsor had mentioned the gangs, he had formed a mental picture of low-browed hooligans, keeping carefully to their own quarter of the town." - P.G. Wodehouse, Psmith, Journalist, 1915

"A Dutch court sentenced the hooligan who attacked [the] goalkeeper during a cup match ... to a six-month prison term Thursday ..." - Associated Press, December 29, 2011

About the Word:

This word may be eponymous: Patrick Hooligan was an Irish-born ruffian who attained notoriety (and who died in prison) in London shortly before the turn of the 20th century. It's still associated with Britain, where "football hooliganism" is sometimes referred to as the "English disease."

Definition:

an absurdly argumentative person

Examples:

"Whats here, chop logicke." - William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1597

Choplogic has two meanings, and can refer to either "involved and often specious argumentation" or the kind of person who engages in such behavior.

About the Word:

The word was formed by a combination of logic and an obsolete sense of chop meaning "to bandy words, answer back."

You should be warned that knowing what to call such a person will in no way alleviate your displeasure should you have to deal with one.

Definition:

rascal; rogue

Examples:

"'Not by my will,' said Mr. Vincy. 'I shall have enough to do this year, with an idle scamp of a son, without paying for wedding-clothes.'" - George Eliot, Middlemarch, 1871-2

"British director Guy Ritchie took Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes out of mothballs in 2009, giving him a sarcastic and kinetic update with the help of lovable scamp Robert Downey Jr." - Matthew Odam, Austin American-Statesman, December 16, 2011

About the Word:

Scamp once functioned as a verb meaning "to roam about idly" (think scamper). The noun we've featured here appeared later, and has a more playful overtone than some other words on this list.

Definition:

one belonging to or suited to the lowest moral or economic condition of usually urban civilization : a street urchin

Examples:

"But when the afternoon arrived, his unsuspecting mother found her pretty parlours invaded by twelve little gutter-snipes, not much cleaner as to vocabulary than as to person." - Lucia Runkle, Harper's Magazine, 1873

About the Word:

For many people, guttersnipe conjures up images of a Dickensian waif, some ill-clothed and iller-fed child of the streets, making their way through Victorian London by hook or crook. Which makes sense, in a way, since the works of Charles Dickens are well-populated with guttersnipes.

Dickens, however, seems to have not used the word in any of his writing. There is evidence of the word being used as early as 1824, it initially referred to a pig, and was not in wide use to describe children at the time that Dickens was writing.

Definition:

a base, despicable, or vile person; a miserable person

Examples:

"Amazing grace! How sweet the sound / That saved a wretch like me. / I once was lost, but now am found, / Was blind but now I see." - John Newton, Amazing Grace, 1779

"This kind of loss is so much part of a cyclist's life that it even seems pointless to get angry with the miserable wretch who stole it." - Andrew Gimson, The London Evening Standard, January 10, 2012

About the Word:

Wretch has been part of English about as long as knave. Wretch's Old English ancestor meant "outcast; exile," which raises this question: Did our ancestors exile despicable people, or did those they exile become miserable as a result of their expulsion?

Definition:

a lazy talkative person

Examples:

"She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum" - Robert Burns, The Poetical Works of Robert Burns, 1807

About the Word:

Blellum combines in its definition two qualities that are not often found together: laziness and loquaciousness. Its origin is uncertain, although it is thought to possibly be a blend of two Scottish words, bleber (to babble), and skellum (a rascal).

Definition:

a mealymouthed sanctimonious hypocrite

Examples:

"We therefore protest to-day against these "Mawworms" of the press, who are always indulging in querulous complaints of plagiarism, and all the while are the greatest of literary pilferers." The Freemason, 1875

About the Word:

Does the definition for mawworm have a slight ring of personal affront to it? As a rule, a definition should not be clouded by the likes or dislikes of the lexicographer. But perhaps this definer once had a bad run-in with a mawworm?

On the other hand, it is also a fine definition, and very clearly explains what this word means.

Purse-leech
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Definition:

one that is excessively greedy for money

Examples:

"I melt in tears to see the Rebels reignIn Court and City with their hungry train,That like Purse-Leeches in the Lawyers Inn,Sucks others Wealth, to enrich their begging Kin."- G.P., Englands Murthering Monsters, 1660

About the Word:

If you ever find yourself being described with a word that contains "leech" in it, chances are very high that you are not being complimented. One of the things that is enjoyable about a word such as purse-leech is that while it is archaic and obscure, it is also very simple to understand, and requires no additional explanation.




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