Week seventy-three: WOSBIRD (probability 17663), by David Sutton

WOSBIRD is a contraction of whore's bird, and is an old dialect term of abuse implying dubious parentage. A similar insult is expressed by the Shakespearean HORSON, and might lead to the remonstrance 'Do not BEWHORE my mother, thou RUDESBY!'.

We are not, of course, short of modern terms of abuse, though in these days of rather different sexual mores the emphasis has moved away from the imputation of bastardy. But some of these ancient words of opprobrium do have such a fine ring to them that one rather regrets their loss. HELLKITE and the similar Scots HELLICAT expressed a charge of great cruelty. FRANION and DRATCHELL were terms for a loose woman. CULLION implied base rascality, as did RIBAUD. In Old English, about the worst charge you could make against a man was to call him a NIDDERING (variants NIDDERLING, NIDERING, NIDERLING, NIDING and NITHING), implying abject cowardice; the same idea was expressed by HILDING (or HYLDING). A KILLCOW was a bully or swaggerer. A PRINCOCK or PRINCOX was an arrogant effeminate fellow. Bald people came in for their share of contumely with PEELGARLIC, PILGARLIC or PILGARLICK, and also, especially for tonsured clerics, SHAVELING or SMOOTHPATE. A BEDPRESSER was a lazy person. And FUSTILUGS is wonderfully evocative for a fat slovenly person.

But perhaps my favourite derogatory term is HUMGRUFFIAN (or HUMGRIFFIN), a catchall term for a generally terrible person. I like to think that even now in this universe of infinite possibilities one Scrabble players has just played RUFFIAN and another is thoughtfully contemplating a rack containing GHMU...


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