Insults or Derogatory Terms I
Bill Long 8/30/07
Primarily with the Male Gender in Mind
About eight months ago I wrote a series of essays on the development of insults in English. In order to give equal treatment to the ladies, I also listed about 35 insult words that have historically been directed at women. I have since come up with a few more insult words directed to women, but they will have to wait for another occasion. In this essay I will explore many that I didn't list in the earlier essays. Here they are: (1) whippersnapper; (2) stickybeak; (3) quakebottom; (4) dunderwhelp; (5) eyeservant; (6) smatchet; (7) shoulderclapper (today we have back-slapper or glad-hander); (8) slubberdegullion; and, my favorite (9) queer plunger. Most can be defined rather quickly; let me begin with the one which requires most explanation--queer plunger.
We plunge into this topic by entering into the Victorian world of the 19th century. A recent (2006) detective novel by Canadian author Maureen Jennings, Vices of My Blood (A Detective Murdoch Mystery) introduces us to queer plungers in Victorian Toronto. Murdoch receives a telegram advising him to be on the watch for "queer plungers," a family of three who have just showed up in Toronto and were probably "working" the King Street area. Callahan, Murdoch's stenographer, didn't know what queer plungers were, so Murdoch went on to explain:
"Queer plungers is a cant term for folks who commit fraudulent acts upon the public. Typically, they work in groups of three or more. For instance, a favourite trick is for one of the group to pretend to be despondent, and in full view of a crowd, he will plunge into some water, the lake or a river like the Don. The second member of the gang will then effect a rescue. The half-drowned one will be taken to the closest house. They always make sure it’s a tavern or failing that a church just emptying of the congregation. Then there is some cock-and-bull story about why the poor man wanted to commit self-murder in the first place. Debts of honour, most like. A go-around is suggested so he can redeem himself. Another go-around for the rescuer. Get the picture?”
What would be our modern term for people who defraud the public? In any case, a great historical term, which brings us into the world of con men (originally "confidence" men) and schemes to delude the public.
Whippersnapper and a "Slang" Dictionary
Let's go quickly now, then end our two essays with one other historical term. No one is quite sure of the origin of whippersnapper, but by 1700 a dictionary had defined it as "a very small but sprightly Boy." The source of that quotation should make us pause for a moment. It is "B.E's" 1699 Dictionary of the Canting Crew. This dictionary, the first "slang dictionary" in English, "reached back to the chronicles of Elizabethan low life" and described that life in great detail. Because the word "slang" was itself not invented until the early 19th century, the previous word to describe the argot of a particular group was "cant." Thus, the "canting crew" were those who lived on the edges of society, whose life this dictionary claimed to describe. Many imitators of this kind of dictionary grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, but the "high-brow" Oxford English Dictionary tended to ignore them when compiling its so-called definitive record of the English language. Nevertheless, as this article says, when the OED's 2nd edition came out in the late 1980s, it found itself repairing to the most carefully-done dictionary of slang and unconventional english, edited by Eric Partridge, for some of its words (such as the entries for "fuck" and "prick" and "cunt," which are all now soberly defined in the OED). In any case, by the 18th century a whippersnapper was "a diminutive or insignificant person, esp. a sprightly or impertinent young fellow." We can see "B.E." in that definition, can't we?
Other Useful Terms
The picture created by the word "stickybeak" says it all: it is "an inquisitive person; one who sticks his nose into others' affairs, a Nosey Parker." The term wasn't invented until 1920, and now is said to be "Austra. and NZ colloq." Its first usage attestation is this: "I've told the girls to give out that we've gone fishing, if any stickybeaks get to asking why we ain't visible no more." Though I haven't heard the word used much in the US, I believe it has legs. It is superior to "Nosey Parker" (again, a term of uncertain origin) or a "prying cow" or something like that.
I could find no dictionary support for the word quakebottom being a coward, but the Net so defines it, and the combination of words in it suggests the phenomenon. I prefer it to "fraidy cat"... A dunderwhelp is "a dunderheaded 'whelp,' a contemptible blockhead. Its first attestation in 1621 is this: "What a purblind puppy I was!..What a dunder-whelp, To let him domineer thus!" An eyeservant is one who performs his duty only when under the eye of the employer. The word originated in the mid-16th century in a sermon by Oxford Protestant martyr Hugh Latimer, "The most part of servants are but eye-servants."
I actually need one more essay to finish my thoughts.