5 Infamous Insults That Used to Mean Something Totally Different
When picking a new insult to throw at someone, current comedic convention suggests you string together a series of random incongruous words. You type, “Yeah, like I’m going to take advice from a lopsided milk-stained piss plank.” People read that and supposedly laugh, so long as they don’t think about it too hard and don’t catch on to the formula.
Such insults don’t roll off the tongue too well. When we want an insult that people can use over and over, we instead take a single existing catchy word and repeat it till its meaning mutates over time. Inevitably, it ends up describing our enemies exclusively, and soon, no one remembers what it originally meant.
A Geek Was a Carnival Worker Who Bit Heads Off Chickens
The word “geek” appears to share roots with “gawky.” That’s fitting, for a word for someone awkward. But if we go back exactly one century, we see a world where “geek” referred to a very specific kind of person. Their geekiness didn’t describe the sort of pop culture they consumed but rather the sort of culture they provided.
A geek worked at a carnival, in an act called a geek show. Some carnival performers exhibited impressive talents, and the freaks showed off strange physical features, but here’s what the geeks did: They bit the heads off of life animals. The chicken was a popular subject for this act, as were snakes. “Come and see Esau, sittin’ on a see-saw, eatin’ ’em raw!” said one chant, advertising a West Virginia geek whose real name was Wagner.
Geeks were not held in high esteem. No one marveled at the skill of their head-biting, just at the depths they were willing to lower themselves to. “Geek” started to attain its current meaning in the 1980s. By this point, incidentally, biting animal heads on-stage wasn’t considered geeky at all but was metal as hell.
An Idiot Was Anyone But a Politician
Before “idiot” was a word you could throw at anyone with whom you disagree, it had a more formal meaning. An idiot was someone with an I.Q. less than 25, while other words described people that fell in other ranges — an imbecile scored between 25 and 50, while a moron managed between 50 and 75. It’s pretty easy to see how the words transitioned from that to their looser current meanings.
“Idiot” has deeper roots, however. It comes from the Greek idiotes, which described a private person. We suppose this means that all introverts are idiots, an observation that we’re sure will be a huge hit with everyone on the internet who reads this.
Except, there was a little more to the original meaning. A private person wasn’t someone with a private personality but the opposite of a public figure. It meant a non-politician. This fully explains the origin of the word, because of course it’s the non-politicians who are idiots. Why, think of the first person who comes to your mind when you hear the word “politician,” and consider how envious you are of their clearly superior intellect.
Side note: That still makes more sense than the history of one more synonym for idiot, “nimrod.” It meant hunter, after Nimrod the hunter in the Bible, right up until Bugs Bunny said it in a cartoon and everyone then just assumed the word had to mean idiot.
Dicks Were Older Than Penises
We love genitals, but likening someone to genitals does not praise them. Call someone a dick, or a bell-end, or a twat, and you’re always saying roughly the same thing about their undesirable personality. All these insults, and a few others, are named after genitals — but that may not be true in the case of “dick.” We’ve been derisively calling men dicks for longer than we’ve been calling penises dicks.
Naturally, Dick has been a name for many centuries, while “dick” has only meant penis since the 19th century. Less obviously, a dick meant a man since before it meant a penis. In the 16th century, the word just meant “guy,” and you’d call someone an odd dick just as you’d call them an odd fellow. Then by the 17th century, it specifically meant a man as a sexual partner. If a woman had trouble getting pregnant, a friend might procure for her a dick. And that certainly sounds like “dick” there meant the organ, as well as the person, but it didn’t. The same sources that trace this usage state that it would be another two centuries before “dick” meant penis, a use of the word that began in the military.
The modern pejorative use of “dick” appears to have started in the 1960s. We, of course, now have many other similar derived words (dickish, dicking around), but we’ve also lost some. One slang dictionary from 1891, which does note that “dick” means penis, mentions a now-forgotten slang phrase that meant “to use long words without knowledge of their meaning.” The phrase was “to swallow the dick.”
A Barbarian Spoke Gibberish
Today, a barbarian is a specific type of warrior, capable of relentless rage and proficient with medium armor. Before that, it was a word to levy at any of various peoples to dismiss them as savages. But let’s go even further back, to the Greeks, who originated the term. They used the word to describe anyone who didn’t speak Greek.
They didn’t call these people barbarians to say anyone who speaks no Greek is a savage. The meaning evolved the other way, beginning by referring to non-Greek speakers and then only later becoming an insult. The Greeks even called the Romans barbarians, without making any claim about their level of advancement.
The reason they came up with the word barbarian (or the root, barbaroi) was that people speaking anything but Greek sounded to them like they were just saying “ba-ba.” Barbarians were “blah blah” speakers. Greeks calling people barbaroi was an example of onomatopoeia. And us calling that onomatopoeia is not an example of swallowing the dick.
‘Weird’ Meant You Have the Power to Magically Control Fate
When we write an article and call a bunch of facts “weird,” we’re calling them cool in a non-specific way. When someone calls a person weird, however, that’s rarely a compliment. Even if you do think weird people are cool, you don’t express this by calling them weird.
So, when many a young person reads Macbeth and sees three witches called the Weird Sisters — or reads Discworld and sees three witches called the Wyrd Sisters, or reads Harry Potter and learns of a band called the Weird Sisters — they say, “Sure. Those witches are pretty weird, what with the eyeball cooking and scheduling meetings around hurly burlies.” This forgets an earlier, original meaning of weird. Originally, the word said nothing about the wrong kind of nonconformity but instead referred to the magical power to control fate.
Wyrd was an old Norse word meaning “fate,” and in its earliest English form, it was associated with the Fates from Greek mythology. But the meaning hasn’t really changed that much. The idea that weird people control the fate of the world? That’s actually still true.