Words are a life form and, just like flesh-and-blood life forms, they change over time. They spring into life; their meanings undergo a long, subtle process of mutation and usually, eventually, they either go extinct or exist only in fusty, dust-gathering dictionaries on library shelves; in fusty, dust-gathering corners of the internet and in the little grey cells of a few fusty, dust-gathering academics.
I was thinking about ‘flaky’ recently. This is not a word I grew up with, but one that seems to have blossomed in the last five to ten years. I got a general sense of what flaky (or flakey) meant from the context of the various TV programmes and websites it cropped up in, but also spotted a contradiction. To some people it seemed to mean bizarre, outlandish, freakish, eccentric or off-the-wall in one’s behaviour. To others it meant unreliable, careless, lazy, dishonest – somebody who was all things to all people, liable to ditch their friends or not turn up to appointments. There obviously is a link here – if you are eccentric you may also be – thought not necessarily – unpredictable, and from unpredictable it’s a short(ish) hop to unreliable – but nonetheless these are two different meanings. This is the process of mutation.
Looking even further back to the origin of the ‘flaky’ you get something different again. Somewhere around the 1050s, apparently, the drug coke was referred to as flake. Flakey became baseball slang for the bizarre or unpredictable way in which a coke addict might act. Every word has its day. Some – like flaky – will have their fifteen minutes/days/years of fame and sink into obscurity, but others will be here for ever, or almost.
‘Forever’ words tend to be words for the most basic things that have relevance to human beings – love, hate, food, sex, hope, fear. In English we would refer to these as Anglo-Saxon words. Even in a language polluted – or enriched, depending on how you look at it – by Latin and Norman French – the old words remain, in parallel use with their Latin or French equivalents, but with ultra-subtle differences of meaning. It is this richness, these subtleties, that makes English a difficult language to master (even for the English) but a great one for writing poetry.
But, insults are fun; they are wild and colourful in a way that other words are not and this more than makes up for their ephemerality. So let us celebrate the insult:
Oinker – a fat person.
Stumblebum – blundering and inept.
Dweeb – a person regarded as socially inept or foolish, often on account of being overly studious.
Still in use, to a greater or lesser degree
Snake in the grass – a treacherous or deceitful person.
Machiavellian – a scheming, devious, political-type person.
Vulgar – conspicuously and tastelessly indecent; also the sort of thing someone of a lower social class than yourself might be expected to say, do or be.
Shiftless – vintage version of (some aspects of) flaky.
Bespawler – someone who spits and slobbers when he talks.
Dew-Beater – a clumsy person (someone with particularly large shoes)
Fustylugs – a gross, corpulent woman (fusty = something that’s gone off or gone stale).
Gnashgab – someone who only ever seems to complain.
Klazomaniac – someone who only seems to be able to speak by shouting.
Quisby – a shirker, someone who just lazes around.
Saddle-Goose – to saddle a goose is pointless, so a Saddle-Goose is someone who wastes their time doing something pointless. A bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Smell-Feast – someone who gatecrashes a meal or a party in the hope of being fed.
Whiffle-Whaffle – similar to Shilly-Shallyer – someone who can’t make up their mind and dithers about.
Microphallus – self-explanatory if you think about it.
Ninnyhammer – a stupid person. Similar to Dummkopf in Geman.
Cacafuego (“shit fire” in Spanish) – a braggart and a boaster.