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Queen - prat second from left

Welcome, my friends, to a world of affectionate insults. A world where every sentence ends with an accusation of idiocy and every accusation of idiocy has been fluffed up and gussified so it is, at worst, only mildly astringent, and at best, feels like a warm hug from your favorite aunt.

Some are harsher than others, some started out as real fight-starters, that have lost their cutting edge with time, and some are just plain cute through and through.

Suffice to say, you can try most of these out on your British friends and they probably won’t take offense, in the same way I could use doofus or knucklehead, but don’t try them out on strangers or your new British boss.

We’ve a lot to get through in one sitting, so if you don’t mind, I’ll just crack on:

• In the ’70s, when rock music was at its most pompous and self-regarding, the NME once ran a feature about the band Queen, which featured a big photo of Freddie Mercury, under the headline “Is This Man A Prat?” by which they meant “is he too silly to be taken seriously?” in a really dimissive way.

Now clearly they could have gone with any number of harsher insults, but nothing could be more damaging to a rock star’s inflated sense of self than a cuddly dismissal like this. Using prat effectively says “we don’t have strong enough feelings about you to hate you, we just think you’re odd.” And that’s where these mildly-offensive terms come into their own, as a way of expressing ambivalent disapproval, or a very loving form of critique. In an argument, you can be far more persuasive if you’re not shouting, after all.

Wally became very popular as a way of suggesting the person you’re talking to has made a bit of a fool of themselves. Originally derived from Glasgow slang for the kids from the posh end of the tenements (the stairwell of the tenement buildings was called a wall close, which is where the more well off families lived. The children from these families were considered socially awkward by the children from the rest of the tenement and the term wally stuck), the word was later taken up by hippies at festivals in the ’70s, as a kind of shouted in-joke. “Where’s Wally?” they’d shout, and then giggle into their beards.

By the ’80s, it had been taken up by sitcom writers as a useful insult that could be broadcast for family viewing, and the word enjoyed a brief fashionable spell, before being overtaken by other words. You’re not likely to hear anyone being called a wally these days, it fell out of favour so severely that it actually makes you look like a wally for using it.

• Also Scottish in origin, but far more common these days, is the wonderful numpty. It means the same as wally, but lacks the cultural baggage. Plus it’s very pleasing on the tongue; try it!

• Depending on where you look, div (or divvy) appears to be a golf-related insult, derived from divot, a patch of earth carved up by a mis-hit ball, another word for which is clod. I’ve no idea if this is true, but the term used to carry a much stronger undercurrent of “person with mental impairment” than clod ever did. If you struggled with schoolwork and were slow on the uptake, you’d be called a div-kid, or divvy. Somehow the passing years have softened this term, so it’s now a stronger (and faintly more offensive) version of idiot; another word which derives from the treatment of people with learning difficulties. Div is probably the toughest word on this list. Only to be used when you are sure the person you’re talking to will take it well.

• Then there’s wassock, or wazzock, another term rooted in the treatment of people with learning difficulties (it refers to a village idiot), which has since lost that association. As indeed has barmy, barmpot (Scots variation on barmy), and dozy. Suffice to say, if you call someone as a dozy wassock, they probably don’t think you’re calling their intellect into question in any medically troubling sense.

• Similarly, berk is a word that used to be incredibly offensive. It’s rhyming slang, where berk is short for Berkeley Hunt and that rhymes with…well never you mind. The point is it doesn’t really mean that any more. There was a character in a much loved children’s animated TV show called Trap Door that gloried under the name Berk. That’s how inoffensive it now is.

• There’s also plonker, which is liberally spread across the BBC sitcom Only Fools And Horses. Way back in the past, plonker also used to be used as a noun, to describe the male member, and it has also been used (according to online sources) to denote a man who allows his girlfriend to sleep with his friends. So it has something of the old cuckold to it, meaning someone who’s been hoodwinked by his wife, and is therefore a fool.

• Pillock comes from a similar source, being a contracted version of pillicock, another archaic term for the male member, the second half of which is still very much in active service. But again, it’s only ever used as an affectionate little dig. The sort of thing you’d say to someone who locked themself out of their house or apartment in their dressing gown, but only after they were safely back inside.

And this lucky dip of cute disrespect is being added to all the time. A few years ago, people started calling each other “you muppet,” possibly because of the silliness of Jim Hensons’ finest creations, but most probably because it’s a really pleasing word, all muffled ms and pointed plosive ps, with a glottal stop at the end for extra impact. The films of Guy Ritchie have used it quite a lot, and make it sound quite threatening, in a way that wally could never hope to emulate. But at the end of the day, you’re still saying muppet, and how offensive can that be really?

What shall we do next? Tell us here:

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine