Curse Words From The Past That Have Aged Incredibly Poorly

Curse Words From The Past That Have Aged Incredibly Poorly

Language is constantly changing, and swear words are no exception. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that our ancestors from long ago had a rich vocabulary of curses and foul phrases that they could unleash on their enemies. Some of these might be worth bringing back, so we can put every smellfungus and Arfarfan’arf in their place. But others? Others are simply too filthy.


Ever felt like slinging around the term “trailer trash” but thought better of it at the last minute? Well, then this could be the one for you. In a time when Europe had clearly defined upper and lower classes, calling someone a “churl” was a major insult. And given that it means peasant, we can see why. Now, the noun may have disappeared, but we still use part of it in the word “churlish” today.

Apic/Getty Images


We’re headed to the Renaissance’s illicit underbelly for this slur, and things are about to get criminal. If you ever need to call out a liar, cheat, or con artist, then why not give “knave” a try? Its connotations weren’t always so immoral, though. Originally the word would have been used to refer to a peasant or servant in medieval times. How things have changed!

Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images


The verb “cozen was reserved for only the sneakiest of scoundrels during the Renaissance. It likely originated from the phrase “to make a cousin of,” which was a popular scam of the time: someone would claim to be a part of the family and then con the target out of their money. One moment you’re sharing a cup of tea, and the next, you’re penniless. 

Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images


Before the dawn of the poop emoji, there was no better way to lament on excrement than “scumber.” Although the lighthearted phrase doesn’t actually sound like a curse word, rest assured, it’s pure filth. But be warned, if you want to try and bring this verb back, it only applies to dogs and foxes. So be careful where you scumber!

DeWitt Historical Society/Cody Collection/Getty Images


Shakespeare was famous for including this swear in many of his plays. When a character uses this exclamation – like “‘Sblood, I would my face were in your belly” in Henry IV, Part 1 – you know something is about to go down. It’s short for “God’s blood,” and it packs a powerful punch in the Bard’s work. 

Thomas McLean

Bloody Nora

Our sincere apologies to Noras everywhere – it’s the pesky Brits who are to blame for this one. Back in the day, Cockneys would often utter “flaming horror” to show their complete and utter disbelief about something. Naturally, those rhyming Cockneys just couldn’t resist changing things up. And what do you get? Bloody Nora! 



This insult started out in the Bethlem Royal Hospital. Founded in 1247, it was the longest-operating psychiatric unit in Europe. And it’s little wonder the patients were mentally unstable, as in the 1600s and 1700s, it became known for its terrible conditions. That’s right, calling someone a “bedlamite” meant you thought they were a total fruitloop.

Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons


Feeling angry or surprised? “Gadzooks” is the exclamation you need. The expletive is a shortened version of “God’s hooks,” or the nails that were pounded into the cross. The phrase goes way back to the 1600s, though it also sounds like it easily could have originated in 1930s American crime movies. 

The Caddo Company


What in tarnation does “thunderation” mean? Well, if you prefer to keep the blaspheming to a minimum, then it’ll do the trick. A lighter version of the swear “damnation,” it’s the perfect way to show your irritation without taking the Lord’s name in vain. We can certainly see an old prospector or saloon owner hollering this one, which makes sense since its heyday was in 1830s and ’40s America. 

Buyenlarge/Getty Images


A Spanish word that basically translates to “s**tfire,” “cacafuego” was also the name of pirate Sir Francis Drake’s ship. And despite the literal meaning of the term, it was originally used to refer to someone bragging too much about their accomplishments. Now this one we can understand!

Bettmann/Getty Images


If you’ve ever traveled with someone who wouldn’t quit complaining, then you were probably in the company of a “smellfungus.” This is the kind of person who always has the worst things to say about absolutely any vacation spot. That Karen who always leaves brutal Yelp reviews – yep, she’s a smellfungus, alright! 

WATFORD/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images


This Renaissance-era term could be used for both naughty dogs and human children. How versatile! It’s meant to insult the misbehavers by comparing them to fragile little puppies. Despite how harsh the taunt may seem, though, “whelp” was used well into the 1970s in some communities. Maybe hold off on bringing this one out at your next family get-together. 

Bettmann/Getty Images

Consarn it

As you may have guessed, partner, “consarn it” came straight from the Wild West. Those on the frontier would have let out an exasperated “consarn it” to show their displeasure about anything and everything. And we imagine there was probably quite a lot to be riled up about out there on the lawless plains of the Old West. Now quit your caterwauling and saddle up!

Alan Jay Lerner Productions


Elizabethan pimps were called panders (if they were male) and bawds (if they were women). And if you were cruising the smoggy streets of Elizabethan London, then Mary Firth wouldn’t be someone you’d want to meet down a dark alley. She was one of the most famous bawds of the time and an infamous pickpocket to boot. She even bagged the nickname Moll Cutpurse and inspired the play The Roaring Girl.

Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images


This medieval turn of phrase is a little obscene, so we’ll let a tenth-century Bible translation do the explaining. The holy book contains the phrase, “Don’t sard another man’s wife.” Got it? That’s right, “sard” is an old version of the f-word. Sard it all!

Heritage Images/Getty Images


One of the better curse words from long ago, “jobbernowl” can trace its origins all the way to France. It was an insult that translates to “stupid head” or “numbskull.” The comical word was a perfect way to let someone know that you thought they were being dumb.

Public Domain/The Library of Congress


If you’re an introvert, then you’re probably afraid of rakefires: guests who overstay their welcome, even though you’re ready for them to leave. Of course, common custom prevented most hosts from outright booting their guests out the door. But a good shout of “rakefire!” could sure help vent some frustration.

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images


Ahoy, me hearties! This one is for the sailors and pirates. Ever heard of scurvy? Well, “scald” is just another word for the disease that afflicted those who spent prolonged lengths on open water and didn’t get enough Vitamin C. Victims of the scald would have loose teeth, terrible skin, and a whole host of other awful complications. Aaaarrrrgggghhhh!

RKO Radio Pictures


If someone drank too many arfs – or half-pints of beer – they may turn into an arfarfan’arf. You guessed it – a drunk! While the Victorian people have a reputation for being strict and buttoned-up, they actually coined plenty of absurd and hilarious slang terms. We’d hazard a guess that this particular phrase stemmed from some iffy pronunciation after a few too many tipples.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Don’t sell me a dog

Everyone knows it’s bad to tell lies, but it seems the Victorians were even more preoccupied with spinning the truth. And the term “don’t sell me a dog” became the perfect response to swindlers and cheats. At the time, there were tricksters aplenty, and it wasn’t uncommon for dog salespeople to try and pass off mutts as purebreds. So before long, everyone understood it to mean “Don’t lie to me.” Makes sense!

Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Got the morbs

When life hits you hard, someone from the Victorian era might tell you you’ve “got the morbs.” This rather clever phrase from 1880 means to experience some momentary melancholy. One to try at the water cooler?

Public Domain

Shake a flannin

Hopefully, you’ve managed to sober up from your arfs, because one of your friends is just about to “shake a flannin” with that broad-shouldered stranger over by the bar. This is the Victorian way of saying they’re going to fight. Take cover! 

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company


If a brisk bust-up wasn’t enough to get you seeing straight, then how about stuffing some hearty food into your “sauce-box?” If you can’t figure that one out, you’re probably still way too arf’arf’an’arf and should order another portion of fries.

Bettmann/Getty Images


While “chuckaboo” may sound like the name of an imaginary creature you made up when you were eight, Victorians actually used the word quite often. “Chuckaboo” was what they called their closest friends, or, in our terms, their BFFs.

Public Domain

Butter upon bacon

To Victorians, bacon and butter were considered luxuries on their own. So, put them together, and you’ve got yourself an overindulgence that just wouldn’t have been tolerated. And there we have it – if something was simply a little too extravagant, they’d say it was “butter upon bacon.” Hungry, anyone?

Photo by Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Images


Grab your kilts: we’re headed to ancient Scotland. The handy saying was invented through Scottish Middle English and stems from “woe’s sakes.” And this one’s simple. When a Scot was horrified, heartbroken, or just plain sad, they’d let out a “waesucks” or two. It’s fun to say, though a bit hard to spell.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Doing the bear

Nothing beats true friendship, and the best way to show love to a buddy is by doing the bear. Wrap your arms right around them and give them a big bear hug. Just try not to growl!

Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images


Karaoke nights are known for attracting some not-so-great singers, but instead of hurling your drink at them, just call them “whooperups”. The meaning? It roughly translates to “inferior, noisy singers.” Here’s hoping they won’t understand, and it saves you from another rendition of My Heart Will Go On. It’s a win-win!

Otto Herschan Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


Now, on the flip side, if you wanted to say you “completely understand” in Victorian slang, all you have to say is “umble-cum-stumble.” It’ll likely sound like you have too much food in your mouth, but maybe someone else will “umble-cum-stumble.”

Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images


Excuse me? Although it sounds like gibberish, some of the silliest-sounding Victorian slang words actually have pretty intelligent origins. Batty-fang, for example, is a Low London phrase that basically means “to beat someone up”. Some say it’s derived from the French battre a fin. How fancy!

Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Smothering a parrot

Fret not, animal lovers; the saying “smothering a parrot” doesn’t mean what you think. The alcohol absinthe was once also known as “parrot” due to its green color, so, in short, the phrase means to drink some absinthe. Rest easy, Polly!

Kennet Kjell Johansson Hultman


Not all Victorian slang is completely ridiculous – in fact, some of it is still used by business professionals today. Lawyers, for example, use the word “suggestionize,” which means “to prompt.”

adoc-photos/Corbis via Getty Images


When trouble’s a-brewin’, there are those who chose to run, and those who chose to be “bricky.” If you’re the “brave and fearless” type, then this word is perfect for you. And for the less so plucky, why not try the mantra, “be more bricky.”

HJ Lutcher Stark Center Collection

Bang up to the elephant

Back in Victorian England, you might describe something as “bang up to the elephant.” This bizarre phrase has a rather simple meaning: “perfect, complete, and unapproachable.” Need we say more?

Photo by Mike Lloyd/Getty Images

Fifteen puzzle

If some of this slang has you confused, no sweat: there’s even a term for “complete and absolute confusion.” Next time you’re caught in a pickle and left scratching your head, you can say you’re feeling like a “fifteen puzzle.” Or was it fourteen?

Illustration by GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Collie shangles

While this saying unfortunately spawned from the act of dog fighting, “collie shangles” was actually coined by Queen Victoria herself. The phrase basically means to have a quarrel or fight with someone.

GraphicaArtis/Getty Images


As silly as “daddles” may sound, it’s literally just another word for your hands. So if anyone ever tells you “nice daddles,” just remember: they’re only being slightly less creepy than they come off.

Transcona Enterprises


A portmanteau of “damned if I know,” “damfino” was probably uttered by this young gentleman when his wife asked where he parked their other wagon. “Did you leave it by the streetlamp, Bartholomew?” “Daminfo, Catherine!”

John Thomson / Hulton Archive / Getty Image


If “chuckaboo” still has you grinning from ear to ear, someone from the Victorian era might call that a “gigglemug.” The phrase refers to a “habitually smiling face.” Just go easy on the maniacal laughter or you’ll be branded a bedlamite.

Warner Bros

Paintin’ your nose

Drink more alcohol than is wise, and you’ll discover there is one rather surprising side-effect: it can turn your nose into a red bulbous thing. A bit like a clown’s conk. So when someone back in the Wild West days used the “painting your nose” phrase, they simply meant going to the saloon and drinking far too much hard liquor.



What on Earth was someone doing in the Old West when they were pirooting? Well, they were perhaps ambling around with no purpose and no particular place to go. Or they might have been sticking their nose in somewhere it wasn’t wanted. The Lexico website thinks that “pirooting” derived from “pirouetting” sometime in the 19th century.

stevecoleimages/Getty Images


A blatherskite is someone who blabs far too much and also talks a lot of nonsense to boot. It may have been a popular word in the 19th-century Wild West days, but its origins lie much further back in time. According to Merriam-Webster, the first recorded use of blatherskite dates from around 1650.

Annapurna Pictures

Mouldy grubs

Mouldy grubs sound really quite repellent. But it was the unkind term that folk in the Wild West days used to describe traveling showmen. It seems that they had a low opinion of them. Perhaps they were connected in the public mind with the con artists and grifters who wandered the prairies, intent on parting honest folks from their money.

American Stock/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Crawl His hump

If tales of life in the Old West are to be believed, the phrase “crawl his hump” may well have been in frequent use. That’s because back in that sometimes violent era, the words were used to describe someone who was spoiling for a fight. What’s more, if you were actually crawling someone’s hump, you were brawling with them.

Otto Dyar/Hulton Archive/Getty Images


For someone out west, a wealthy dandy from the east with silvered pistols and a diamond tie-pin might well be seen as highfalutin. So it was someone who was just a bit too fancy for their own good. They likely had a rather high opinion of themselves as well. Probably just the sort of dude that a rough-tough cowboy would enjoy taking down a peg or two.

ilbusca/Getty Images


If somebody with a catawampus look about them came into the saloon bar, it was probably time to check the exit routes. Because if someone was catawampus, they were in a particularly ornery mood. Rather more gently, the word could also be used to describe something that was out of kilter or disordered.

Matthias Clamer/Getty Images

Prairie coal

Coal on the prairie? Surely not. Coal tends to be found in the mountains, not on the endless, flat grasslands. But if you were out in the middle of nowhere with no fuel to light a fire, what were you to do? The answer was to collect dried dung: prairie coal. It burned nicely, although there might be a smell not best described as fragrant.

OwenPrice/Getty Images

Huckleberry above a persimmon

Huckleberry above a persimmon. Now, if you haven’t come across that Wild West phrase before, it’s a real head-scratcher. Maybe it’s because a huckleberry is tiny compared to a persimmon, so adding the fruits together would make you a little bit better than just a persimmon on its own.

ilbusca/Getty Images


If you told someone back in the 19th century that they were talking balderdash, you were most definitely not agreeing with them. The word means nonsense, claptrap, baloney. It’s perhaps a little too blunt to use in elevated philosophical discourse. But it probably suited argumentative cowboys round the campfire just fine.



It’s quite simple really. If you’re corned, you’re drunk. This Wild West term has roots that go deep. Renowned 14th century English writer Geoffrey Chaucer used the word corny to describe ale in The Canterbury Tales. And of course there’s every chance that cowboys and outlaws were drinking illicit hooch distilled from corn. That liquor no doubt had the capacity to blow your head off.

Matthias Clamer/Getty Images


Let’s get one thing clear from the start: the phrase “four-flusher” has absolutely nothing to do with a high-tech bathroom device. A four-flusher in the Wild West was a card sharp who habitually bluffed that they had a flush, or cards of the same suit. By association, the words came to describe anything that was false or dishonest. So a four-flusher was a trickster.

Annapurna Pictures


A honeyfuggler was someone who used sweet words to get their way, often with a heavy helping of insincerity. So a honeyfuggler was a deceiver and most probably a crook — or a politician as well. Merriam-Webster says that the first recorded use of the word dates back to 1829, and it derives from the English slang “fugel,” to cheat. A synonym, too good to leave out, is hornswoggle.


Knock galley-west

If something is galley-west, it is chaotic, disordered or discombobulated. So if someone is knocked galley-west, they are in a state of confusion and bewilderment. Merriam-Webster confesses uncertainty when it comes to the derivation of the phrase, but it does speculate that it may have come across the Atlantic from English dialect.

Annapurna Pictures

Coffee boiler

Perhaps a coffee boiler is a helpful person, someone who selflessly prepares hot beverages for others? Far from it: coffee boiler is by no means a compliment. In the Wild West, it meant somebody who hung around the camp fire watching the pot simmer instead of getting on with the hard labor at hand.

Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Airin’ the lungs

No, “airin’ the lungs” did not mean some kind of 19th-century aerobic workout. It meant turning the air blue with coarse and profane language. Definitely not something to be done in polite company. A secondary sexist meaning referred to the prattling gossip allegedly indulged in by women. We prefer the cussing definition.

LMPC via Getty Images

California widow

The mid-19th-century West Coast gold rush created the California widow. When the menfolk headed west in search of the yellow metal, they often left their wives behind. The idea was that they would reunite later. But that separation could go on for lengthy periods. So those women left behind on their lonesome became known as California widows.

Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images


If you were in the town calaboose, things probably weren’t going too well for you. Because the word means jail. Collins Dictionary reckons it dates back to around 1785 to 1795. Its origin is unclear apparently, although it may be related to the Spanish word calabozo, which means dungeon. Sounds fairly plausible to us.

Monogram/Getty Images


If you decided to skedaddle, you ran away with all speed. It was most often used in the Wild West to describe escaping a difficult or even dangerous situation. So it’s no surprise that the word seems to have caught on during the Civil War. The fierce battles of that era must have meant there were plenty of times when skedaddling to fight another day looked like an excellent option.

Annapurna Pictures


The Wild West had the Scottish to thank for the word hootenanny. The word first took hold in the Appalachians, a region with a high number of Scot migrants. It meant a get-together where the mountain folk brought their banjos, fiddles, and squeeze boxes to play some old-time music. There may also have been a certain amount of liquor and dancing.

Bettmann/Getty Images

A hog-killin’ time

Having a hog-killin’ time does not mean you are hanging out at a slaughter house. Actually, a time so described is one spent partying. And it is an excellent party if it’s good enough to be called hog-killin’. Although it might be a somewhat insensitive phrase to use if you happen to be in the company of an actual pig.

Earl Leaf/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Bend an elbow

There are lots of pursuits that require the bending of an elbow. Playing tennis for example. Or pitching a baseball. But when the phrase was used in the Old West, it was not a sporting activity that folks had in mind. No, the leisure activity being described was one generally observed at a saloon bar. The words meant enjoying a drink of hard liquor.

Annapurna Pictures

Whip the devil around the stump

So what exactly were you doing if you were beating the devil around the stump? It didn’t mean that you were involved in some kind of sinister satanic rite, we’re glad to say. What you were doing back in the day was using delaying tactics to avoid hard graft. Or you might have been dodging important responsibilities.

Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA)

Bunco artist

A bunco is a fraud or a scam of some kind. So a bunco artist was a conman. If you met one of those, the best advice was to keep a firm grip on your wallet. Merriam-Webster says that the word may derive from the Spanish banca, but the origin remains obscure. The first documented use came in 1872.

Brownie Harris/Corbis via Getty Images

Don’t care a continental

If you heard the phrase “don’t care a continental,” you’d be forgiven for asking, “a continental what?” In fact, the answer to the question dates back to the American Revolution. During the conflict, the Continental Congress created its own currency, known as continentals. But the money was laid low by inflation. So if you didn’t give a continental about something, you didn’t care much for it.

Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA)

Mail-order cowboy

If you called someone a mail-order cowboy, you didn’t literally mean that the person had been picked out of a catalogue and sent via the postal service. What you were implying was that the character was not a genuine product of the Wild West. Generally, it was applied to new arrivals from the east who were kitted out in brand new duds.


Best bib and tucker

Putting on your best bib and tucker for a special occasion was very much a thing in the Old West. A tucker was a piece of ornamental cloth, sometimes lace, that hung on the neckline of a formal gown. A bib, in this context, was not something a baby wore at feeding time. It was a frilly decoration on the front of a dress shirt.

via National Museum of African American History and Culture

Doxology works

Doxology is a word that came from the ancient Greeks via Latin to English. It means an act of praise dedicated to God such as a hymn. So it’s a practice most commonly seen in a church. And thus, with a twist of humor, a place of worship becomes a doxology works, almost as if it was a factory for holy worship.


As fine as cream gravy

Cream gravy was made with milk, flour, meat drippings, and seasonings. It was a notoriously delicious sauce when poured liberally over mashed potato or biscuits. So if something was characterized as being as fine as cream gravy, that was high praise indeed. The phrase could be used to describe anything of exceptional quality.

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Arkansas toothpick

An Arkansas toothpick was not something to give your teeth a once-over with after a meal. Far from it. It was actually a rather ferocious weapon — a long, sharp knife — which may tell us something about the good folk of Arkansas. Then again, comparable terms included a toothpick from Missouri or California. So it wasn’t just the Arkansans who had an apparently violent streak.

Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Hurricane deck

A hurricane deck, you might guess, was a part of a ship where you could take refuge during a particularly violent storm. But you’d be wrong back in the days of the Wild West. Folk then used the term to describe an especially difficult horse, the sort that might well buck you off its back when you tried to ride it.

Annapurna Pictures

Going to see the elephant

Well, if you’re going to see the elephant, presumably you’re going on safari or visiting a zoo. Nope, that’s not what was meant back in the Old West times. Cowboys used it to talk about reaching a town at the end of a long trail. Or migrants used it to describe the overwhelming experience of traveling the Oregon Trail westwards.


Fight like Kilkenny cats

The Kilkenny cats have their origins in Ireland. The precise details of the story are somewhat murky, but essentially it’s a rather grim tale of two kitties fighting to the death. It perhaps dates back to the 18th century. One thing’s for sure: Kilkenny is a real place in Ireland. In the Wild West, the phrase was used to describe a no-holds-barred scrap.

TriStar Pictures


Trust us: being Chicagoed is not a good thing. It actually means to be overwhelmingly defeated. Discussing the phrase in 2015, NPR compared it to the crushing impact of a baseball shutout. But it could apply to areas of life other than sport. Why the city of Chicago should end up having its name used in this way is a mystery.

Produzioni Europee Associate (PEA)


Trying to guess what lally-cooler might mean from a standing start is a tricky puzzle indeed. So we’ll put you out of your misery. Something described as a lally-cooler was a resounding success. So back in the Old West if somebody said your outfit was a real lally-cooler they were in fact being complimentary.

J.B. Gibson/Buyenlarge/Getty Images


Being a member of the shoddyocracy might have meant that you were wealthy. But you would hardly have been respected or liked by your fellow citizens. For the shoddyocracy made their money by selling sub-standard goods or services at outrageous profit. Sadly, shoddyocratic practices are still very much with us in modern timers.


Wake snakes

Sleeping snakes are probably preferable to snakes that are wide awake. But wake snakes had a particular meaning to the folk of the Old West. If you behaved in a wake snakes way, you were out of control. That meant that you were very likely heading for trouble of some kind. So being wake snakes was something to be avoided.


Making a mash

Making a mash. Something to do with potatoes surely? No, it’s not. If you were making a mash on someone, you were trying to impress them. The phrase was commonly used when a cowboy had romance on his mind. For some reason, trying to impress a woman who had caught his fancy was known as making a mash.

LMPC via Getty Images


A doggery was not a building where you kept your hunting hounds in the Old West. In fact, confusingly, it had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with canines. It was actually a saloon. But not just any old bar. A doggery was in particular a drinking establishment of the lowest order, where the booze was cheap and the company was dubious.

George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Ride out on a rail

Riding out of town on a rail meant much more than simply departing by train. The phrase encompassed a kind of community punishment for wrongdoing. It could include a miscreant being paraded around the streets in shame. The final element of the penalty would then be a forced and humiliating exit from the scene of the crime.

KEYSTONE-FRANCE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images