Ever called anyone a “cretin”? Accused someone of “vandalism”?
Ever wonder about those vile and disgusting “cannibals,” and wonder if man-eating men are called cannibals because the word rhymes with “Hannibal”?
Well have I got exciting news for you. There are words in the English language that derive from entire groups, cultures, even civilizations from ancient history, that have become useful ways to insult your friends!
That’s right, if you’re a culture and you die out, you get to be summed up and immortalized forever in one convenient word that people half-consciously toss into their daily jibbajabba.
1. The word: Cretin
What it means: Dumbass.
Cultures it secretly insults: People from Crete, and Christians.
The word “cretin” used to mean someone with a physical and mental growth hormone deficiency, until its widespread use as a generic insult made it offensive as a medical term. One etymological theory says the word comes from the French for “Christian,” which was a condescending way to soften the blow, e.g., “Aww, you’re amazingly stupid, bless your little heart.”
Another theory says “cretin” derives from the name of the Greek island of Crete, where at one point there was a widespread iodine deficiency among the populace. In other words, the word implies that Crete is an island full of imbeciles. Real nice, language. Way to make friends with other languages.
2. The word: Cannibal
What it means: People eater.
Cultures it secretly insults: The Carib people; people who live anywhere near the Caribbean Islands.
When Columbus sailed the ocean blue, he ended up in the “new” world. (Pretty old, actually, to the ancient civilizations living there, but let’s not split hairs coughMayanCalendarcoughcough.) One of the shiny, new places Columbus discovered was Cuba. He spoke to the Cubans, and they told him about some people living in what later became known as the Lesser Antilles islands.
What Columbus heard from those Cuban commies, with his Spanish ears, was “Canibales.” Columbus and his Spanish buddies eventually rowed their little boats over to those Canibales’ islands and made nice by kicking their asses and haphazardly taking names.
Sometimes, when these Canibales people kicked the Spaniards’ asses right back, they would cut a piece of flesh off their vanquished enemies, stick it in their mouth, chew it for a while, and spit it out.
The Spanish were witnessing a warrior ritual, but what their brains saw was LORD IN HEAVEN, ALL THEY DO IS EAT HUMAN FLESH, THEY’RE RAVENOUS, OH MY GOSHNESS, HOW GHASTLY!
Eventually, all human flesh-eaters in all of human history were named after the “Canibales.” Except the actual name of the people was — and is — “Carib.” Which is why we call those islands the “Caribbean.” But who’s splitting hairs?
3. The word: Bugger
What it means: “Drat! Phooey! Puh! Puh!” But it used to mean sodomite.
Cultures it secretly insults: Bulgarians, and church reformists.
The word “bugger” comes from the French for “Bulgarian.” The Bulgarians it referred to specifically were a group of 10th-century church reformists called the Bogomils, who were basically against all forms of authority. They didn’t like politics, they didn’t like the church, they held their ceremonies outside instead of inside, and…they figured the devil created the earth and stuff, not God. Um.
- So, this guy, basically.
So the Bogomils were a little bit exactly opposite of the way the other people in their time figured things ought to be. Obviously this also meant the Bogomils didn’t do regular-old, boring, heterosexual sex, right? Well that’s what the traditionalists in all their wisdom ascertained, anyway.
So “Bulgarian” gave rise to “bugger,” by which was meant “sodomite,” and then it just meant “Goshdarnitall,” and everybody pretty much forgot the whole thing. Until this article appeared on This Blog Rules, that is. You’re welcome.
4. The word: Sodomite
What it means: Sodomite.
Culture it secretly insults: Actual Sodomites.
So. There was this place, right? And it was called “Sodom.” Crazy, that.
Why would they name a city after the act of sodomy?
Oops, turns out it was the other way around. The city existed before the act.
So wait, back up. Why would anyone name the act of sodomy after a whole city? Must be everyone there is doing it wild style all the time, right?
Nah, just this one time, in the Hebrew bible. And it was just a few of the residents of Sodom, but that was enough to consider it representative of the whole town, according to the bible. Turns out there was this party at Lot’s house, but when the guests showed up, some other guests from Sodom came and tried to have their way with all the dudes. Dammit, I hate when that happens.
Of course, God did what any decent god would do, and trashed the entire city of Sodom. And then He said:
“And let their name be synonymous with a differently aimed member for all eternity…eternity…eternity…” [Fade to black.]
5. The word: Vandal
What it means: Person who breaks, defaces, or changes someone else’s property.
Culture it secretly insults: Actual Vandals.
The Vandals were a huge East Germanic tribe formed in the 4th and 5th centuries. Before they became famous for being one of the many groups to sack the crap out of Rome in the 5th century, the Vandals had a pretty sophisticated culture for a pre-medieval tribe. They cremated their dead. Their administrators spoke Latin. And did we mention they had the organizational ability to sack the crap out of Rome? Rome wasn’t sacked in a day, you know.
Modern historians generally credit the Vandals and Goths (another East Germanic tribe) with doing their damnedest to preserve Roman culture. But of course, sore losers that they were, the Romans decided to make the name “vandal” synonymous with the destruction of art and beauty.
Meh, who knows how vandal-tastic the Vandals really were. Whatever the case, if I were a Vandal, I sure as hell would resent what my name became equated with over the centuries.
6. The word: Gypsy
What it means: Wandering thief-type; artsy type; Rent enthusiast; hipster.
Cultures it secretly insults: Egyptians, and the Romani people.
“Gypsy” is short for “Egyptian.” The Europeans in general came up with that one. The actual name of the ethnicity known as “Gypsy” is “Romani.” The Romani people have their own culture and their own language (with many dialects), and they trace their origins way back to India, not Egypt.
Yet to Europeans, anybody from “out east” was probably Egyptian. Either that or “Bohemian,” which was another place that wasn’t six inches from people’s noses and thus became synonymous with Gypsy. Meh, they all look alike.
7. The word: Philistine
What it means: Uncultured person; New England Patriots fan.
Culture it secretly insults: The people of ancient Philistia.
The people and culture of Philistia lived for about five centuries, from the 12th to the 7th century BCE. They owned five massive city-states, which collectively the Israelites called “the Pentapolis.” The Philistines had a full-on culture of their own, but they were the enemies of the Israelites, so by the 16th century CE, the Judeo-Christian-Western culture figured they had better paint the Philistine culture “uncultured”.
Heaven forbid we should let our enemies have any shred of humanity. Do you agree? If not, you’re a dirty philistine and I am better than you. Good times!
8. The word: Slave
What it means: Involuntary servant; property of other people.
Culture it secretly insults: Slavic people.
Well this is awkward. Believe it or not, the word “slave” derives from the word “Slavic,” as in the peoples who mostly originate from and live in the area of Eastern Europe. At one point in ancient history, Slavic peoples were often captured and sold into slavery by outside forces. So much so, that the umbrella term for all those cultures became the word we now use for one who allegedly belongs to someone else.
How depressing. Send in some clowns!
And the good times don’t stop! So now when you say anything — anything at all — you can relax knowing your words are super-charged with all kinds of bloody politics spanning thousands and thousands of years. You’ll never have a normal conversation again.
I wonder what tiny, insignificant, ridiculously over-simplified word your entire culture will be stuffed into, a thousand years from now?
Will Conley is a green commie fascist lesbian Asian Jew from Pluto, and too confused to know whether he’s proud of it.