Words at Play

Rare and Amusing Insults: Cockalorum, Snollygoster, and More

How dare you called me a ninnyhammer you pillock!
20 Apr 2022

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 cockalorum

Definition - a boastful and self-important person; a strutting little fellow

Once upon a time book titles were a touch more ... adventurous than they are today. Take, for example, the slim volume of songs and anecdotes the British publisher J. Fairburn foisted on an unsuspecting public at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries: The Cockolorum songster, and convivial companion, for 1800: Being a collection of monstrous good, monstrous droll, and monstrous bad, songs, introduced by some eccentric anecdotes of my cousin, the noble grand cock. Also a few cockolorum sentiments. Yes siree, they don't title 'em like they used to...

In addition to describing a boastful person, cockalorum can be used in referring to the boastful talk (and also for the game of leapfrog. If cockalorum suggests a crowing cock, that's because the word probably comes from kockeloeren - an obsolete Dutch dialect verb meaning "to crow.”

Naturally, she was jealous when her mother, after glimpsing Shaw, said, “he was a well-scrubbed old cockalorum, with frightful teeth.”
The Independent, (London, Eng.), 12 Mar. 2011

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 snollygoster

Definition - an unprincipled but shrewd person

There is much that we do not know about snollygoster: where the word comes from, whether it is connected to snallygaster (“a mythical nocturnal creature that is reported chiefly from rural Maryland, is reputed to be part reptile and part bird, and is said to prey on poultry and children”), and whether this is the sort of word that one should avoid putting on a resume.

What we do know is that snollygoster was first used in the nasty politics of 19th century America. One amateur definition of the word dates to 1895, when a newspaper editor explained "a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles...."

Now here I am, a rale self-propelling double revolving Snolly Goster, ready to attack anything but a combination of thunder-lightning-smoke-railroad-iron, and hot water.
Democratic Free Press (Detroit, MI), 1 Jan. 1846

helen mirren dont be a pillock
Photo: via Budweiser

Definition - a very stupid or foolish person

Pillock (which has also on occasion been spelled pillochpillok, and pillick) is one of the hundreds of euphemisms for the male sexual organ in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest known use of the word from the mid-16th century (a fruitful time for genitalia euphemisms), and for several hundred years this was apparently the main sense of the word. However, beginning in the late 20th century pillock took on another meaning, which is that of an idiot or fool of some sort. Both of these uses are almost entirely confined to British English, and the word has little currency in the United States.

There is a season-ticket holder at Southampton to whom every referee will always be a “daft pillock.”
The Guardian (London, Eng.), 17 Jan. 1977

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 lickspittle

Definition - a fawning subordinate; a suck-up

Lickspittle (the etymology is pretty self-explanatory with this word) is part of a grand pantheon of English words for sycophants. We have bootlicker, toadeater, ass-kisser, apple-polisher, and fart-catcher … wait, scratch that last one; a fart-catcher is a footman. The point is, we have many words for the sort of person who, you know, licks spit. Although the word was long thought to have been the product of the 19th century, recent findings show that we have been referring to lickspittles since the middle of the 17th.

They are most of them Barbers, Taylors, Panders and Procurers, Parasites and Lick-spittles: There are also by report some gallant Courtiers amongst them.
—Joseph Hall, Psittacorum Regio, the Land of Parrots, 1669

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 smellfungus

Definition - an excessively faultfinding person

It is not often that we know who created a particular word, despite the claims that are made about such-and-such writer inventing this-or-that word; such claims are usually false. In the case of smellfungus, however, we not only know who coined the word (Laurence Sterne), we also know who it is supposed to represent (Tobias Smollett). Stern created a hypocritical character named Smelfungus in his 1768 book A Sentimental Journey through France, a satire on Smollett, whose Travels through France and Italy had been published two years earlier.

The matter of whether smellfungus is properly pluralized with an -i or an es has never been established. Both forms are found in occasional use, and you should employ whichever suits your fancy.

These were diluted into a combined mass of travels, by the Smellfungi and Mundungi within the century, and blazoned forth in all the pomp and parade of novelty, preceded by a very pretty preface, in which the tourist affects to be led, like blushing maiden, to the printing office, by the relentless persuasion of friends.
The Sunday Times (London, Eng.) 21 Sept. 1823

Jason Bateman plays ruthless spelling bee contender Guy Trilby, a smellfungus who is determined to obliterate any child in his path.
The Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, FL), 20 Mar. 2014

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 ninnyhammer

Definition - ninny; simpleton, fool

The word ninny is probably a shortening and alteration of "an innocent" (with the "n" from "an" getting transferred to the noun) and "hammer" adds punch. Innocent hammer, while a fine choice of name for your Metallica polka cover band, did not have quite what it takes to make it in English as a fixed phrase.

Horses, will bee head-strong as vnnurtured Lobcockes, and snap their bridles in pieces as fast as hops; the powerfull prouender shall make them swell in the belly like a sullen girle in the cheeke, or a wench after toying and that will cracke girts apace: but for conclusion diuers women shall saddle their poore Husbands backes, and make plaine Ninny hammers of Noddies.
—Thomas Dekker, The Owles Almanacke, 1618

Any ninnyhammer can challenge me to prove that this or that chemical, medicine, food or poison is not absorbed through the skin.
— William Brady, The Hartford Courant, 9 May 1966

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 mumpsimus

Definition - a stubborn person who insists on making an error in spite of being shown that it is wrong

Supposedly, this insult originated with an illiterate priest who said mumpsimus rather than sumpsimus ("we have taken" in Latin) during mass. When he was corrected, the priest replied that he would not change his old mumpsimus for his critic's new sumpsimus.

So we have literally generations of American editors who have been enforcing this preposterous rule, for which there is no legitimate basis and which is invisible to everyone who is not a newspaper editor. And if the over/more than furor is any precedent, pointing that out will produce grumbling mumpsimuses.
— John McIntyre, The Baltimore Sun, 7 Oct. 2017

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 milksop

Definition - an unmanly man; a mollycoddle (a pampered or effeminate boy or man)

Milksop literally means "bread soaked in milk." Chaucer was among the earliest to use milksop to describe an unmanly man (presumably one whose fiber had softened). By the way, the modern cousin of milksop, milquetoast, comes from Caspar Milquetoast, a timid cartoon character from the 1920s.

Milk also serves as compound indicating cowardice in milk-livered (“kind of like lily-livered, but with more milk and fewer lilies”). Should you have need of an adjective meaning “resembling or of the nature of a milksop” you are in luck, as English has two such words, milksoppy and milksopping.

I'll be bound, for Charles he's been seein' to the poor fellow, here these milksops sit as if 'were nailed to the stools 'cause they're got a wife, would'nt give 'um for a squadron o'ye, how do'st 'do Charles did'st give the 
poor fellow something to put 'um comfortable?
—Anne Newport Royall, The Tennessean, 1827

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 hobbledehoy

Definition - an awkward, gawky young man

Hobbledehoy rhymes with boy: that's an easy way to remember whom this 16th century term insults. Its origin is unknown, although theories about its ancestry include hobble and hob (a term for "a clownish lout”). The earliest known use of the word comes from a 1540 translation of Gulielmus Gnaphaeus's The Comedye of Acolastus, in which it is used in an attributive sense, referring to young men's "hobledehoye tyme" (further explained as "the yeres that one is neyther a man nor a boye, at which yeres our voyce changeth").

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 pettifogger

Definition - shyster; a lawyer whose methods are underhanded or disreputable

The petti part of this word comes from petty, meaning "insignificant" (from the French petit, “small"). As for fogger, it once meant "lawyer" in English. According to one theory, it may come from "Fugger," the name of a successful family of 15th- and 16th-century German merchants and financiers. Germanic variations of "fugger" were used for the wealthy and avaricious, as well as for hucksters.

When Lincoln took the train to Washington to assume the presidency in 1861, sometimes traveling incognito in the dead of night to avoid assassins, a scathing newspaper editorial described the president-elect as a “facetious pettifogger” who was “no more capable of becoming a statesman” than a “braying ass can become a noble lion.”
— Chuck Raasch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, MO), 7 Apr. 2016

top 10 rare amusing insults vol 1 mooncalf

Definition - a foolish or absentminded person

The earliest meaning of mooncalf was a false pregnancy, a growth in the womb supposedly influenced by a bad moon. 

...in that they haue not a charge of their bodies but the cure and care of their soules and as Midwiues to discerne the moone calfe from the perfect fruite of weomen so Preachers should not bring forth moone calues.
—Ralph Tyler, Five Godlie Sermons, 1602

Mooncalf then grew a number of additional senses outside the womb. One is a literary word for a deformed monster (for instance, in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Stephano entreats Caliban, "Mooncalf, speak once in your life, if thou beest a good mooncalf”). Another sense is that of “simpleton.”

Thou Mercury very Ridiculous, Thou Bloxford flye,Thou Moon calfe, born that very hour, on that very dismall fifth day of the moneth (you remember the Gun-powder Treason) when thy brother G. Faux was caught with a dark Lanthorne....
—John Booker, A Rope for a Parret, 1644


Definition - a mountebank; a person who sells quack medicines from a platform

Quacks (also known as quacksalvers) were a bit nimbler several hundred years ago, if the etymology behind some of the words for them is any indication. Both saltimbanco and mountebank involve climbing, or jumping up onto a bench. Saltimbanco comes from the Italian word of the same spelling, which literally means “one that jumps upon a bench,” and mountebank comes from the Italian montimbanco (montare, “to mount” & in, “in” & banca “bench”).

There was Priam likewise, that came for an Unguent for a burn; but the Saltinbanca had not enough, for the whole City of this poor Prince was all burnt.
—Cyrano de Bergerac, Satyrical Characters (trans. by 'a person of honour'), 1658


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

The smellfeast is a special kind of parasite; one who is able to detect the presence of fine food and drink before it is on the table. Some 19th century editions of Noah Webster’s dictionary included a secondary definition, “A feast at which the guests are supposed to feed upon the odors only of the viands,” but this sense has long since fallen out of fashion.

This is the Practice of your Smell-feast Friends, while you keep a plentiful Table they are your most Humble and Obedient Servants, but when the Accommodation fails, like Tartars, they seek for other Pastures.
—Anon., The Fables of Pilpay, a Famous Indian Phylosopher Containing Many Useful Rules for the Conduct of Humane Life, 1699

readhead screaming at someone

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