Thursday, September 19, 2013

An idiot by any other name

Slang is language that takes off its coat, spits on its hands, and goes to work.
Carl Sandburg

As the poet Carl Sandburg suggested, slang is the language of the common man, the working man, the man in the street or however you wish to describe ordinary folks. English teachers, college professors and professional people may use slang, but most of it seems to originate out in the street, and especially in schools, playgrounds and wherever young people hang out. It also originates in bars and pubs, as my Sept. 6 post (He's cherry merry) illustrates.

Just as there seem to be an incredible number of slang terms to describe those who are intoxicated, so there are many used to describe fools and idiots. I recently came across an impressive list in Stuart Berg Flexner's 1982 book Listening to America. Here are just a few samples from that list, which covers about seven unusually large pages:

addlebrain, in use since 1674

beetlebrained, 1604

birdbrain, 1943

blockhead, 1549

cabbagehead, 1682

chowderhead, 1819

clown, 1563

dimwit, 1922

dodo, 1628

dope, 1896

fathead, 1842

featherbrain, 1839

goof, 1570

hockey puck, 1970s

jelly bean, 1915

lamebrain, 1934

lunkhead, 1852

muttonhead, 1804

nincompoop, 1676 (originally spelled niconpoop)

ninny, 1593

nitwit, 1926

numskull, 1724

out to lunch, 1950s

playing with half a deck, late 1960s

retard, 1976

scatterbrain, 1790

simple, 1220

slow, 880

yahoo, 1726

Chances are you are surprised at how old some of these slang terms are. The list illustrates how someone in each generation manages to come up with a new way to call somebody else else an idiot.

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