Many common words we use to insult people did not begin with our current definition. Here are a few that have changed over the years.
Punk, worthless person - Punk has long been an insult in the
English language. Shakespeare used it as an especially dirty word
for prostitute in 1602. Eventually it came to mean young male
prostitutes. This evolved by the 1920s to mean "young, inexperienced
boy.” Inexperienced soon translated to good-for-nothing and
criminal. During the 1970s, British men in spiky leathers and Mohawk
hair styles were called punks.
Brat, - badly behaved child - The worst kind of children in
the olden days were very poor. Brat as slang dates from the 1500s in
England, and meant beggar’s child. Beggars often made sure their
children were prominently displayed to garner more sympathy and
money, which was annoying to passersby. Bratt is also an old English
word meaning 'ragged garment' or 'cloak'. Brats often wore bratts,
affirming that they were in fact, brats.
Jerk, obnoxious or dull person - Because older trains ran on
steam, they often needed to be refilled with water. Water towers
were built periodically along the train tracks and had hanging
chains that the boiler man would “jerk” to start the water flowing.
Towns sprang up around many of these water-stops and smaller ones
were usually called jerk-water towns and their populations jerks.
Dunce, slow-witted or stupid person - John Duns Scotus was a
brilliant 15th century philosopher. He pioneered the idea that we
had the exact same kind of goodness inside us that God did, but a
lot less. Unfortunately, his followers, known as the Dunses in the
century succeeding his death, were reputed to be the most stubborn,
closed-minded philosophizers around. Mr. Scotus’ name became
attached more to his stubborn followers than to his own work.
Bum, one who performs a function poorly - We owe the
legendary German work ethic for the introduction of the word bum to
mean useless. It meant 'buttocks' since the 13th century (and is
still used as such by many). The use of the word became popular
during the Civil War, when German immigrants swelled the ranks of
the Yankees. The German word bummler was easily shortened to apply
to any soldier, because he was a loafer, sitting on his bum all day.
Barbarian, uncivilized or savage - “Bar-bar” was how ancient
Greeks imitated the babbling stammer of any language that was not
Greek. Thus barbarian came to mean the sort of lowbrow foreigners.
Cretin, stupid or insensitive person - Cretin is an insult
that evolved from a real and dreadful medical condition. It comes
from a word used in an 18th century Alpine dialect. The word was
crestin, used to describe a dwarfed and deformed person. Cretinism
was caused by lack of iodine resulting in congenital hypothyroidism.