Did you know that “Texas” is a slang term for “crazy” in Norway? As in, “Put down the nunchucks, Sven! No need to get Texas in here!” They’ve been using it that way for decades, and it’s weird to think that a thousand years from now, it’s possible that word will still be around even if nobody using it remembers that the state was even a thing.
It’s kind of a dick move, if you think about it, to have your entire proud history get turned into a mocking term that might outlive you. But lots of the language you use every day came about like this — some group of people turning a petty grudge or classist insult into an everyday word, until it gets baked into the language itself. Like …
#5. “Idiot” Started As A Slur Against Common Folk
You probably have heard that, once upon a time, you could go to the doctor and get diagnosed as an “idiot.” It used to be the clinical term for someone with a low IQ (along with “moron”), and it only fell out of favor after the public started using it as an insult a few decades ago. But if you go back further, you’ll find an even bigger dick move at play.
“Idiot” comes from the Greek word idios, meaning personal or private, a connotation that still survives in words such as “idiosyncrasy.” So, originally, an idiot was simply a private individual — maybe, but not necessarily, because he couldn’t figure out how the doorknob worked and was trapped in his home.
Meanwhile, the origins of your mom being like a doorknob because everyone gets a turn are quite clear.
In ancient Greece, the term grew to be applied to the “common man” — in other words, a private citizen, as opposed to someone holding a public office. (You read that right: In the good old days, there were no idiots in politics.) Of course, back then an ordinary person was almost always also an uneducated person. You see where this is headed. It wasn’t long until the upper crust started extending the term from laypeople in general to “those stupid laypeople,” and from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to Halfwit City, population: you.
And thus a whole history of snide class warfare worms its way into our schoolyard insults. It’d be like if you traveled to the year 3515 and saw doctors diagnosing low-IQ types as “NASCAR fan” or “flies coach.”
#4. “Prude” Was A Compliment Twisted To Shame Women Who Didn’t Want To Have Sex
In a country where you can’t show a female nipple on broadcast TV for fear it will scandalize the public’s delicate minds, it’s still an insult to be called a prude. It paints a picture of an uptight, obnoxious person who insists that even possessing genitals is only for those who lack both shame and class.
But if you were to hop in a time machine and burn rubber back to Old France, you could call a woman a prude and you’d actually be paying her a compliment. The word made its way to English from the French prudefemme, meaning a brave, virtuous, or proud woman. If you’re just now noticing that “prude” and “proud” look awfully similar, that’s because they once shared a similar meaning. They’re dictionary friends!
But the word had a rough trip across the English Channel. While it arrived in early-18th-century England all starry-eyed and retaining the gist of its original meaning, it didn’t take long for dudes in fancy knee breeches to turn it into an insult. Soon, a prude was a woman who was afraid of being seduced. And then it was an older woman who (knowing that the cobwebs dangling from her funbits made seduction unlikely) became overly pious. And finally it meant a woman who most definitely wanted the D but pretended not to for the sake of appearances.
“No D for me, thanks!”
So basically some women were too proud to sleep with some skeevy dudes, so those dudes got their revenge by twisting the word to imply that pride is a shitty thing to have. Isn’t language fascinating?
#3. “Dunce” Is A Smart Guy’s Name Turned Into An Insult By People Who Disagreed With Him
The goal of every political movement is to turn their opponents’ cause into a dirty word. Once upon a time, “Communist” was just a statement of party affiliation; now it’s a slur. We guess the same thing happened to “Nazi” (OK, often the groups do it to themselves). Well, once upon a time a movement just decided to target the leader of the other side and use his name to mean “stupid” until everybody started doing it.
The word “dunce” originates from one John Duns Scotus, considered one of the most brilliant men of his time. He was an influential 13th-century philosopher, lecturer, and theologian so famous for his sharp mind and complex arguments that he was known as “the Subtle Doctor.” That doesn’t mean he was particularly delicate when performing a prostate exam — it means he was renowned for his intricate and nuanced views on just about everything. His followers came to be known as Dunsmen, and for two centuries they taught his doctrines at Europe’s most illustrious universities.
He also founded the Crips.
So how did the term come to be a polite form of “dipshit”? Well, Duns lived toward the tail end of what we now call the Dark Ages, and by the 16th century much of Europe was getting its Renaissance on. The Dunsmen (or, by then, simply Dunses) were resistant to what they called the “new learning,” and this earned them the scorn of Europe’s new generation of brainiacs, who thought them foolish for sticking by tradition. By the 17th century, the name Duns had become the noun “dunce.” It’s a bit like sarcastically calling an idiot “Einstein,” but if we totally forgot who Einstein was and his name became synonymous with people so stupid they need three tries to clap.
“It’s ’cause he had paws, right?”
That guy died in 1308, by the way. They were so effective at mocking his way of thinking that his name still means “dumbass” more than 700 years later.
#2. An “Amateur” Was Once More Respected Than A “Professional”
If you Google “amateur” today … well, let’s face it: There’s really only one reason you’d be searching for “amateur” on the Internet, and it ain’t to enroll in your local nonprofessional kite-flying tournament.
“Man, look at that configuration; it’s barely legal.”
We hear “amateur,” and if our minds don’t immediately jump to “diddler,” they jump to “dabbler.” If there’s a disastrous screw-up at work, the office blowhard will shout something like, “What are you, a bunch of amateurs?” or, “What is this, amateur hour?” or, “Can we please act like professionals for once?” The message is clear: If you’re not getting paid, you’re not to be taken seriously.
However, the amateur of a few centuries ago was far from the casual hobbyist we picture today. Originally French, deriving from the Latin amare, an amateur was a person who pursued an activity for love as opposed to filthy, filthy lucre. Said activity might be in the field of art — France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture awarded the “amateur honoraire” status to honorary experts or consultants — or even in math, philosophy, or science. In fact, we’d be willing to bet you’ve heard of a little amateur scientist by the name of Charles goddamn Darwin.
Amateurs could afford to eschew payment for their efforts because they tended to be gentlemen who already had Scrooge McDuck vaults to swim in. They even went so far as to argue that the introduction of payment would insult their dignity and sully their noble pursuits — when lowborn scientist Richard Owen told a countess in 1865 that he received a salary, she reportedly “recoiled in horror.”
Although ol’ Richy Rape Eyes might have gotten that reaction a lot.
But science was undergoing a period of professionalization, and the gentlemen amateurs suddenly found themselves rubbing shoulders with clever upstarts who actually wanted to, you know, make a living. The upstarts closed ranks and began attacking the amateurs’ work and methods, eventually succeeding in convincing people that if you’re not getting paid for your work, you shouldn’t be taken as seriously as someone who is. And then, in our modern day, we tied the word to porn, so generations from now it’ll just mean “somebody that likes to fuck in poorly lit conditions.”
Hey, speaking of which …
#1. “Hussy” Was A Term For A Respectable Female, Corrupted To Degrade Poor Women
It says quite a bit about us that we seem to have more slang words for “promiscuous female” than we do for “aggressive, violent male.” And while these days everyone prefers “slut” or something much worse, you can still occasionally hear people of a certain age throw around the word “hussy.”
So, what, was there some infamous female back in the day with the last name “Hussy”? Maybe she banged a king and his entire royal court? Nope — it’s derived from “housewife.” Turn back the timeline just a few short centuries, and a “husewif” was the word for “female head of the house.” Middle English speakers decided that “husewif” was a bit awkward to say, though, so they shortened it to “hussy.” At the time, it was a respectable term referring to women who “stayed home, raised the kids, milked the cows, and did as they were told.”
The definition of “respectable” may have evolved a bit over the years as well.
Anyway, around the turn of the 17th century, the word broadened in meaning. Suddenly, any woman could be called a hussy — she didn’t have to be a housewife or even married. As should come as no surprise by this point in the article, any shred of dignity once attached to the word was soon swept right out of the kitchen when class distinctions came into play. Elitists — whose sole form of attack so far appears to be “make a word mean something shitty” — began using the term in reference not to women in general but to women who’d made the baffling life choice of being poor.
“Maybe you should have been born better, idiot!”
The negative evolution continued into the 18th century when, in addition to the unforgivable traits of being both female and destitute, immorality got tossed into the mix. And when it came to women in the 18th century, “immoral” basically meant one thing: sex. And that’s how we ended up where we are today, where calling a lady an old-timey term for “homemaker” merits a swift kick to your nether-regions.
Yeah, you’ve heard the saying “History is written by the victors”? Well, we’re pretty sure that language is written by the assholes.