Elizabethan Slang

Elizabethan era insults and slang were deeply rooted in the social, cultural, and linguistic context of 16th-century England. This period, marked by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), was a golden age for literature, theatre, and the English language, with William Shakespeare and his contemporaries contributing significantly to its richness.

The language was characterized by creative wordplay, witty repartee, and a love for elaborate, often exaggerated insults.

Social and Cultural Context

  1. Class and Status: Elizabethan society was highly stratified, and insults often reflected one’s social standing or profession. Terms like “knave” (a dishonest man) or “churl” (a rude, boorish person) were laden with class connotations, implying not just personal failings but also inferior social status.
  2. Religion and Superstition: The era was also marked by religious conflict and a strong belief in the supernatural. Insults might accuse someone of being a “witch” or consorting with dark forces, which could be genuinely damaging allegations in a time when witch trials were a reality.
  3. Appearance and Behavior: Personal appearance and manners were important in Elizabethan society. Many insults targeted perceived physical flaws or breaches of etiquette, reflecting the period’s standards of beauty and decorum.

Linguistic Creativity

  1. Wordplay and Invention: Shakespeare and his peers were masters of linguistic invention, coining new words and phrases, many of which have survived into modern English. Their use of metaphor, simile, and pun in insults added layers of meaning and wit.
  2. Animal Imagery: Comparing people to animals was a common way to insult them, suggesting they were uncivilized or possessed undesirable traits associated with certain creatures, like being “as stubborn as a mule” or “as sly as a fox”.
  3. Physical and Moral Defects: Insults often exaggerated physical defects or moral shortcomings, like calling someone a “mooncalf” (a foolish person, or literally a deformed calf believed to be influenced by the moon) or a “malt-worm” (a drunkard, implying someone who frequents breweries or taverns too much).

Examples in Literature

  • Shakespeare: His plays are replete with inventive insults, such as “You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe!” from “Henry IV Part 2”, showing his skill in stacking insults for comedic or dramatic effect.
  • Ben Jonson: Another key figure of the era, Jonson’s works also include sharp-tongued characters who use insults to assert social dominance or deride their foes, as seen in plays like “Volpone”.

These elements of Elizabethan slang and insults demonstrate the era’s fascination with language and its power to entertain, persuade, and wound. The creativity and inventiveness of the period’s playwrights and poets have left a lasting impact on the English language, preserving the vigor and color of Elizabethan invective for posterity.

To provide a vivid sense of how Elizabethan insults and slang might have been wielded in conversation or literature, let’s create some indicative examples that showcase their use in various contexts:

In a Shakespearean Play

Imagine a heated exchange between two characters in a Shakespearean drama:

Character 1: “Thou pribbling, ill-nurtured flap-dragon!”
(This insult combines the imaginative with the absurd, calling someone a trivial, poorly raised creature, with “flap-dragon” being a game involving snatching raisins from a bowl of burning brandy, suggesting the person is as insignificant and foolish as the game.)

Character 2: “Away, thou mewling, onion-eyed miscreant!”
(Here, “mewling” suggests childish weeping, and “onion-eyed” implies their tears are as abundant and meaningless as those induced by an onion, with “miscreant” denoting a villainous character.)

In a Tavern Brawl

In the boisterous environment of an Elizabethan tavern, insults might fly as freely as the ale:

Patron 1: “Call off thy dogs, thou beslubbering dewberry!”
(This insult accuses someone of being sloppy or slobbery like overripe fruit, implying they’re as messy and undesirable as a squashed berry.)

Patron 2: “I’ll not bandy words with a swag-bellied codpiece!”
(This retort mocks the other’s girth and implies they’re no better than the padding used to enhance the appearance of a man’s groin in Elizabethan fashion, a deep cut to one’s masculinity.)

Among Nobles at Court

Even in the refined circles of Elizabethan nobility, insults could be both subtle and cutting:

Noble 1: “Your wit’s as dry as the remainder biscuit after voyage.”
(A sophisticated way to say someone’s humor is stale and unappealing, likening their intellect to the hard, dry biscuits left after a long sea journey.)

Noble 2: “Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.”
(This vicious insult from Shakespeare’s “King Lear” uses disease imagery to suggest the person is not just a physical irritant but a deep, corrupting influence.)

In Romantic Rivalry

Elizabethan literature often depicted romantic rivalries, ripe with clever jabs:

Suitor 1: “Fie upon thee, thou spongy apple-john!”
(An insult implying the person is like a shriveled apple, no longer fresh or desirable, with “spongy” suggesting they’re of weak substance.)

Suitor 2: “Begone, thou clouted fly-bitten malt-worm!”
(This retort combines “clouted” (patched or dirty) with “fly-bitten” (pestered by flies, suggesting neglect) and “malt-worm” (drunkard), painting the rival as a neglected, drunken fool.)

These examples illustrate the rich tapestry of insult and wordplay in the Elizabethan era, where linguistic creativity was as much a weapon as a form of entertainment.

Slang & Curses

Elizabethan slang and curses were colourful, imaginative, and often quite insulting. Here’s a selection of terms and phrases that might have been used during the Elizabethan era to throw shade or express displeasure, reflect the vibrant and often earthy humour of the time, drawing on a wide array of topics from the mundane to the profane.

“Thou art a beetle-headed, flap-ear’d knave”: An insult targeting someone’s intelligence and appearance, implying they’re stupid and have big ears.

“Fustilarian”: A term used by Shakespeare in “Henry IV,” meaning a fat and worthless scoundrel.

“Bedswerver”: An accusation of infidelity; essentially calling someone unfaithful.

“Beslubbering”: A term that implies someone is slobbering or drooling, often used in conjunction with other insults to add a sense of disgust.

“Coxcomb”: A fool or a conceited person, originally referring to the cap with a cock’s comb on it that was worn by fools.

“Mewling quim”: A derogatory term for a whining or whimpering individual, with “quim” being an offensive term for a woman’s genitals.

“Rampallian”: A lowly ruffian or scoundrel, used to describe someone of disreputable character.

“Roguish”: While now often seen in a more charming light, in Elizabethan times, calling someone roguish could imply they were unprincipled or dishonest.

“Saucy”: Impertinent or cheeky; not necessarily always negative, but could be used to chastise someone for being overly forward or disrespectful.

“Thou art as fat as butter”: A straightforward insult commenting on someone’s weight, likely to be quite offensive.

“Thou fobbing beef-witted gudgeon”: An insult that combines several elements to suggest someone is deceitful (“fobbing”), stupid (“beef-witted”), and easily caught or fooled (“gudgeon,” a type of small fish).

“Yeasty codpiece”: This term mocks someone by comparing them to a frothy, insubstantial piece of fabric designed to cover the genital area, implying they’re both ridiculous and insignificant.

“Drony bumble-broth”: An imaginative insult implying someone is as useless and annoying as a drone (male bee) and as mixed up and unsavory as a poorly made broth.

“Tardy-gaited death-token”: Suggesting someone moves as slowly as death and is as welcome as a plague mark (a sign of the plague), this insult combines disdain for both the person’s speed and their presence.

“Pottle-deep pox-marked pignut”: This insult layers the idea of someone who drinks deeply (“pottle-deep,” a pottle being half a gallon), is scarred by disease (“pox-marked”), and is as worthless as a pig’s favorite root (“pignut”).

“Hedge-born hugger-mugger”: Implying someone of low birth (“hedge-born”) and secretive or underhanded behavior (“hugger-mugger”), this insult dismisses someone as both lowly and sneaky.

“Spleeny wool-sack”: Combining “spleeny” (bad-tempered or spiteful) with “wool-sack” (a sack of wool, but here implying a person’s body), this term mocks someone’s temper and physique.

“Clapper-clawed varlet”: “Clapper-clawed” suggests being attacked or clawed at, possibly referring to someone prone to fights or disputes, while “varlet” is a term for a deceitful or unprincipled man.

“Malmsey-nosed maggot-pie”: “Malmsey” was a sweet wine, so “malmsey-nosed” implies drunkenness and the red nose that comes with it, while “maggot-pie” suggests decay and worthlessness, likening someone to a pie filled with maggots.

“Canker-blossom”: This term combines the natural beauty of a blossom with the destructive nature of canker (a type of plant disease), suggesting someone who appears fair but is rotten at the core.