Thursday, June 19, 2014

Some things we should not call one another

Some things we should not call one another

Please join me in enjoying a few carefully chosen, not terribly disgusting put-downs:
A blighter is a contemptible fellow, one as terrible as a disease, a parasite, one who inspires blight. Though blighter, which came to the language in 1822, clearly comes from the word blight, which entered the language in the early 1600s, the origins of blight are unknown. Some etymologists lean toward an Old Norse origin of a word meaning to become pale (blikna). Others have suggested it may be a form of the Old English word blaece, a scrofulous skin condition.

I have ignorantly always assumed the put-down cretin voiced someone’s negative opinion of the people of Crete. Wrong. Cretin, which is a slight against someone’s intelligence, actually comes from the Swiss French word crestin, which meant Christian. Apparently, somewhere in the Alpines there was a high incidence of a thyroid condition that severely limited its victims’ mental and physical growth. By a fluke, the region also happened to be the home to the earlier Christians in the area, thus the connection.

During World War II, the term dirtbag was used to refer to the garbage collector. In time, the term extended to refer to a filthy, vile, sleazy, grimy, or disreputable person.

Flibbertigibbet entered English in the 1540s, and referred to a flighty, chattering gossip – usually but not always a woman. It comes from the earlier term flibergib, which referred to the gossip or nonsense itself.

Looking into the various theories (mostly stated as fact) regarding the etymology of the word freak could, well, freak one out. Experts agree that freak seems to have shown up in the 1560s, originally meaning a sudden turn of mind. Oddly, I don’t find evidence of etymologists duking it out over this one. Each school of thought simply states its case as true. A short list of “proposed” origins follows:
            -from Old English frician, to dance
            -from Middle English freike, a bold man, warrior or
            -from Middle English frek, bold, quick
            -from Proto-Germanic, freko, active, eager man,
             warrior or wolf
            -from Old English frec, greedy or gluttonous

Today, a frump is a dull, cross & unstylish person. Frump came to English in 1600s meaning a sneer, jeer or hoax, probably from the noun frumple, a wrinkle.
I have hopes that this probable source is true, as I love the idea of a word meaning wrinkle referring to each of those three very separate ideas: a sneer, a jeer, & a hoax.

Dear followers, I’m certain you’d never use such words on living, breathing, people. However, many of you are writers & readers. I’m hoping you’ll leave a comment connecting a fictional character with one of these words.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: OED, Etymonline, & Wordnik, & Hugh Rawson’s book Wicked Words


  1. PG Wodehouse used "blighter" frequently in his comic novels. Consequently, it's a word that I've always considered very British.

    Dirtbag sounds like cop shows.

    Flibbertigibbet is one that I've only really heard in "The Sound of Music", when the nuns sing of the problem Maria poses to them. But it sounds rather as if it should be Shakespearean as well.

    1. Me, too, Rachel. I'm with you. You hit the nail on the head with your comments above. I was trying to think of characters that might be described in Charlie's chosen terms for today and "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria" totally escaped me. But it's there front and center in the song. There's just something about that word flibbertigibbet that's great fun to say. Love it. Paul

  2. Hey Rachel6,
    It's good to hear from you, & I'm with you on my initial sightings/hearings of those three words.

  3. Lots of great words today, but I LOVE "frumple" Can you be frumplated? Cause I think that's what this frump is. :-)

    1. Hey Anne,
      I've definitely spent some time in a state of frumpilation. May your frumpilacity soon morph into something more rewarding.

  4. Great words. I mostly relate to "freak" which was my hippie friends and I called ourselves. We danced and were bold and quick. Greedy? Don't think so. Unless it was greed for living! Love flibergib. What a great word.

    1. Hey Christine,
      It's hard to imagine you as greedy. Dancing, yes. Bold? Hmm. But then, I'm probably just engaging in flibbergib, aren't I?