On the History of Insults in English III
Bill Long 11/29/06
The Period from 1900-1935 II
The three words that are the focus of this page are nitwit (1914), screwball (1933) and jerk (1935). I will focus especially on screwball and its relationship to the baseball pitch developed by Carl Hubbell in the mid-1920s. The next several essays will look at insult-formation approximately 1955-80, with a three-essay interlude.
The Los Angeles Times ran a June 1914 story with these words: "After her trip to Virginia Miss Helen Morton was quoted as saying that Chicago men were 'nit wits.'" By the next year the Fort Wayne News could say: "It pitied him as a poor nit-wit who was floundering about to hold his job and wished to do all possible to help him." Thus the word meant (and means) a stupid, silly or foolish person. The NY Times used the word as recently as 1997: "Pee Wee Reese was one of the guys willing to take a stand against the behavior of narrow-minded nitwits and racial degenerates, both on and off the field." The word could also be used adjectivally, as Kurt Vonnegut shows us in a brief summary of a portion of Rome & Juliet: "The two houses, of course, were the..feuding families of Romeo and Juliet, whose nitwit hatred would indirectly cause Mercurio's departure for Paradise."
Like nincompoop before it, so nitwit gave birth to a number of children, among them nitwitted, nitwittedness and nitwittery. Only the last calls for comment. Nitwittery is "imbecility, stupidity; foolishness." I like a recent quotation: "He wanted to do something that incorporated our nitwittery and got rid of this stranglehold of seriousness which has dogged my reputation."
Whenever I read the word nitwit, I remember the Three Stooges. They popularized nitwit the same way that Archie Bunker of "All in the Family" popularized dingbat in the 1970s. Usually in the mouth of Moe Howard, the phrase "You nitwit!" or "Ya nitwit! Now you broke the egg!" became etched into my consciousness as a boy. And, as we know, since the boy is the father to the man, I can't quite remove it from my mind today.
Though screwball as a derogatory term originated in 1933, the pitch in baseball was invented several years earlier. To be clear, however, the OED attests it first in relation to the game of cricket. From 1866: "A 'screw' ball, which in slow bowling would describe the arc of a circle from the pitch to the wicket, becomes in fast bowling a sharp angle." But this usage in the upper-class British game was, soon enough, drowned out by its use in American baseball. Here is the story, as reported in this source.
One of the players on the 1926 Toronto Maple Leafs Minor League baseball team was a 23 year-old lefthander from Cushing, OK named Carl Hubbell. No one who saw Hubbell that year, when his record was 7-7, would have imagined that within eight years he would strike out five future Hall of Famers consecutively at the 1934 All Star game. He perfected a pitch that year which was called the screwball because it twisted the arm of the southpaw pitcher in an opposite direction from the curveball. So "unnatural" was the motion of the arm that the coach of the Tigers, who owned the Toronto farm team, told him it would injure his arm. Hubbell said he never threw the screwball while in the Toronto organzation but when he was called up to the majors in 1928 (he spent his entire career with the NY Giants), he began throwing it in earnest. Now we can understand the first attested use of the term screwball for baseball. It appeared in the NY Times in October 1928. "Haines (Jess Haines had come to the Giants from the Cardinals that year) is a large, healthy individual with..a 'screw ball' that ducks under many a well-meant swing with a hickory bludgeon." Thus, Hubbell wasn't the only "screwballer" in New York at the time; he likely taught the pitch to Haines. Indeed, the screwball, which is just about obsolete now in baseball, was invented in the 19th century, but it was not so called at the time.
Since the screwball is thrown in an unnatural way, with the forearm pronated in a powerful way, it picked up the connotation of oddness or strangeness. A screwball could be a madman or an eccentric. Thus, in 1933, there appeared this line in the Saturday Evening Post: "McKabe was already heading for the door. He heard Billers say: 'Who is that screwball?'" The humorist P.G. Wodehouse picked up the term a few years later (1939): "You are going to the Blandings Castle now, no doubt, to inspect some well-connected screwball?" And the word reached the highest levels of the US Government when, in 1944, future President Harry Truman penned a letter saying: "He should have been arrested as a screwball but wasn't." Now, as said above, the screwball has dropped out of baseball, but we still have a lot of them in real life!
Let's finish with a few words on jerk, the noun. It goes back to the 16th century as a term expressing sudden motion or a stroke with a whip or wand. But it wasn't until 1935 that it made its appearance, originally in the United States, to mean "someone of little or no account; a fool.." In fact, the first attestation was in AJ Pollock's Underworld Speaks: "Jerk, a boob; chump; sucker." Aren't you glad I talked about all of those in the previous essay? Sort of like an accumulating wave of insults, crashing over us. The New Republic quickly followed suit, giving its own explanation of a jerk in 1938: "A jerk not only bores you but pats you on the shoulder as he does so."
And so this, like the rest of the 1900-1935 terms, has entered into our vocabulary. Let's review them before moving to the next essay. We have chump, sucker, dingbat, boob, nitwit, screwball and jerk. You almost have an entire faculty here.
Copyright © 2004-2008 Wiliam R. Long