English, whatever its other merits, has as many disparaging words as one would possibly desire. The example that follows is from Sir Thomas Urquhart’s translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, dated 1653, which draws heavily on vocabulary used in Scotland in his time:
The bun-sellers or cake-makers were in nothing inclinable to their request; but, which was worse, did injure them most outrageously, called them prattling gabblers, lickorous gluttons, freckled bittors, mangy rascals, shite-a-bed scoundrels, drunken roysters, sly knaves, drowsy loiterers, slapsauce fellows, slabberdegullion druggels, lubberly louts, cozening foxes, ruffian rogues, paltry customers, sycophant-varlets, drawlatch hoydens, flouting milksops, jeering companions, staring clowns, forlorn snakes, ninny lobcocks, scurvy sneaksbies, fondling fops, base loons, saucy coxcombs, idle lusks, scoffing braggarts, noddy meacocks, blockish grutnols, doddipol-joltheads, jobbernol goosecaps, foolish loggerheads, flutch calf-lollies, grouthead gnat-snappers, lob-dotterels, gaping changelings, codshead loobies, woodcock slangams, ninny-hammer flycatchers, noddypeak simpletons, turdy gut, shitten shepherds, and other suchlike defamatory epithets; saying further, that it was not for them to eat of these dainty cakes, but might very well content themselves with the coarse unranged bread, or to eat of the great brown household loaf.
You don’t hear invective like that any more, and few of us would understand it if we did. There’s enough material there for a year of Weird Words, but I’ve picked out slabberdegullion (a rare spelling of slubberdegullion), a word which nobody hearing it could possibly consider a compliment, rightly, because it means a filthy, slobbering person. There are examples of it on record from the seventeenth century down to the early twentieth but it appears now only as a deliberate archaism.
The experts disagree about where it came from. The first part is clearly English slobber, but the rest is less certain. It might be cullion, an old word for a testicle (it’s related to French couillon and Spanish cojones), which by the sixteenth century was a term of contempt for a man. It might instead conceivably be linked to the Scots dialect gullion for a quagmire or a pool of mud containing semi-liquid decayed vegetable matter, but that’s only recorded rather later.
Page created 12 Jul. 2003
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