Words at Play

10 Polite Words for Impolite People

'Smatchet', 'fustilugs', & other words for people who get on your nerves


Definition: a contemptible unmannerly person

English is a language that contains an embarrassment of riches for when one wants to say something mean about someone else. If you need to refer to a contemptible person you may choose from blighter, cockloche, dandiprat, dirtbag, dogbolt, shagrag, stinkard ... you get the picture. So why do we need smatchet? Well, because there are a lot of contemptible people out there.

And you, ye idle ablich ‘at ye are! negleckin yer business an’ galantine aboot wi’ yon blackguard smatchet o’ a loon, Geordie Onnerson.
—James Leslie, The Otter’s Tale-Book for the Winter Evenings, 1839

Definition: an affectedly nice person, a fop

Prickmedainty, a word that has primarily been used in Northern England and Scotland, may be employed as either a noun or an adjective. It comes from compounding three words, which are exactly the ones you would expect: prick, me, and dainty. When the word first began to be used in the early 16th century it had more of a sense of “someone who cares overmuch about his clothing or appearance.”

It was then my mother found me out, and laughed at me a little; she even called me prick-me-dainty. But it was all no use; Berry King would stick in my mind like a leech on the skin.
—Esmè Stuart, The Prisoner’s Daughter, 1884

Definition: one who insincerely professes love for the sake of gain

This delightful term is fashioned from the earlier noun cupboard love. Rather than give a dry and precise definition of this we shall instead quote from our earliest citation for cupboard love, which comes from 18th century British court records, The Proceedings at the New Bayley (1756): “Now, there is a Kind of Love in the Old Stile, termed Cupboard Love; and it often happens, that what People judge to be an Intrigue with a young Woman, turns out, on a nearer View, to be only an Intrigue with a Leg of Mutton and Turnips. This Kind of Love is frequently seen among certain Gentlemen at Counry Quarters, the Curates in City Parishes, Attornies Clerks, and young Barrister, and may, doubtless, descend to all Persons who have larger Stomachs than Purses. So, Gentlemen, go out.”

Bread-and-cheese-friend, e. A true friend as distinguished from a cupboard-lover.
—Rev. W. D. Parish, A Dictionary of the Sussex Dialect, 1875

Definition: a ponderous clumsy person

Fustilugs is one of those words that does a certain amount to renew one’s faith in the notion that English language makes sense. For even if you had never before come across this term there is no way you would ever mistake it for a compliment; it is an obscure word that manages to still be fairly self-explanatory. It comes from combining the words fusty (“not fresh, stale”) and lug (“a heavy clumsy fellow”).

…especially your Ale-wives, who, like the Germane Froas, are all cheekes to the belly, and all belly to the knees, whose dugs and chins meete without any forceing of either, because you may dayly see such fustilugs walking in the streets, like so many Tunnes, each moving upon two pottle pots) his essentiall parts are so obscured, his Sense so dulled, his Eyes so dazeled, his Face so distorted, his Countenance so deformed, his Ioynts so infeebled, and his whole body and minde so transformed, that hee is become the child of folly, and derision of the world, a laughing stock to fooles, a lothing stock to the Godly, ridiculous to all.
Richard Younge, The Drunkard’s Character, 1638

Definition: one who is presumptuous and offers advice or opinions beyond one’s sphere of knowledge

The meaning of this word comes from a story in antiquity, in which the famed Greek painter Apelles one day heard a cobbler criticizing the way he had rendered a foot in a painting. Apelles then said to the shoemaker something very cutting and witty about how he shouldn’t presume to judge beyond his station. The exact remark has, unfortunately, been lost in time, but since the Latin phrase ultra crepidam means “beyond the sole,” we may imagine that Appeles used this, or something similar, in his rebuke. Hence, an ultracrepidarian is one who, as a shoemaker might, goes “beyond the sole,” and offers advice on matters they perhaps should leave alone.

The fatal dowry has been cobbled sure, by some purblind ultracrepidarian.
—Thomas Lovell Beddoes, letter to Thomas F. Kelsall, 11 Jan., 1825

Definition: a worthless person or thing; one who cumbers the world

Some words are examples of their definition; sesquipedalian, a word which means “having many syllables” may be used to describe itself. And then there are words that definitely are not examples of themselves, such as cumber-world. It is unclear why such a useful word for describing useless things should have fallen into disuse and obscurity. Cumber-world and the considerably more common adjective cumbersome both come from the verb cumber, which originally meant “to destroy utterly”, but also has the sense of “to hinder” and “to burden."

A cumber-world, yet in the world am left, A fruitles plot, with brambles ouergrowne….
—Michael Drayton, Idea the Shepheards Garland, 1593

Definition: one given to finding out and getting invited to good feasts

The smell-feast is a distinctive kind of sponger; not one who imposes on friends for lodging and money, but rather focuses their efforts on being invited to dinner. We have all of us known a smell-feast, even if we lacked the word with which to describe this particular creature.

Base fawning Smell-feast, I beleeve thou art Shrewdly distemper’d both in head and heart; Thy wits are dreggish, and thy spirits dull and restive, c’ause thy belly’s always full.
—Thomas Bancroft, Time’s out of Tune, 1658

Definition: a silly flighty person

Flibbertigibbet is one of many incarnations of the Middle English word flepergebet, meaning "gossip" or "chatterer." (Others include "flybbergybe," "flibber de' Jibb," and "flipperty-gibbet.") It is a word of onomatopoeic origin, created from sounds that were intended to represent meaningless chatter. Shakespeare apparently saw a devilish aspect to a gossipy chatterer; he used "flibbertigibbet" as the name of a devil in King Lear. This use never caught on, but the devilish connotation of the word reappeared over 200 years later when Sir Walter Scott used "Flibbertigibbet" as the nickname of an impish urchin in the novel Kenilworth. The impish meaning derived from Scott's character was short-lived and was laid to rest by the 19th-century's end, leaving us with only the "silly flighty person" meaning.

The flibbertigibbets were only too willing to care for themselves. They loved to live free, like the pigs and chickens of the village, that knew nor pens nor coops. But the baby was a fact to be dealt with!
—Edith Brower, “Baith Faither and Mither,” in The New Catholic World, Oct. 1890

Definition: one who excessively strives for knowledge, or has a preoccupation with it

A person who loves knowledge is a thing of beauty. However, a person who loves knowledge just a bit too much can quickly transition from “thing of beauty” to “person you’d really rather not sit next to at a dinner party.” The epistemophiliac is the sort of person who falls into the latter category. The word is a fairly recent addition to our language, appearing in the middle of the 20th century.

Some of us epistemophiliacs are also quodlibetarians.
—John MacDade, The Whig-Standard (Kingston, Ont.), 11 Oct., 1986

Knipperdolling
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Definition: a religious fanatic

Berndt Knipperdolling was a prominent Anabaptist (a member of a sect of 16th century Protestants who advocated the baptism and church membership of adult believers only), born in Munich at the end of the 15th century. Knipperdolling’s religious views were not shared by some authorities, and he came to an untimely end as a result of them. While initially knipperdolling was simply used as a term for an Anabaptist, it came to later take on the connotation of religious fanaticism.

…there starts up another kind of Government, hatch'd by a Committee of Safety; (of slavery, they meant) who were a rude rabble of Factious, Illiterate, Phanatick, Disloyal Rebels; a knot of Knipperdolings; of the same stamp with that German Botcher, Jack-a-Leyden: the very merdaille and excrementitious offscouring of the Nation.
—J. G. (gent.), The Sage Senator Delineated, 1660




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