The mid-1800s were a colorful time for the American language, when quick-witted historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain roamed the earth. As American English separated from its mother tongue across the pond, our language seemed to change and grow as rapidly as the nation’s borders were expanding and other languages were making their way onto our shores (it was also a bit saltier back then, much like the pioneers who pushed their way westward).
As a result, it turns out some pretty strange insults – many of which we still use today in one form or another – come from the mid-1800s, particularly around the time of the Civil War. (Unfortunately, some of the most racist terms stem from that time period, too…) But it wasn’t our man Abe who won the dis wars in ‘Lincoln’ – it was Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful Republican leader in the House of Representatives under Lincoln, whose wit makes “Your momma” jokes seem like child’s play.
So, with a nod to Tony Kushner’s screenplay for ‘Lincoln,’ here are a few 19th century-style insults that would be worthy of retorts like “Burn!” or “Ooh, no he didn’t!” today:
1.) You fatuous nincompoop! (21st century version: You smug idiot!)
This is my favorite insult uttered by Thaddeus Stevens in ‘Lincoln’ – it’s spoken with so much vitriol and sarcasm, he doesn’t need to use four-letter words to convey his contempt.
2.) Why, you ignoble scalawag! (21st century version: You good for nothing low-life!)
Today, we think of a scalawag as a rascal. But the original definition of scalawag (c. 1848) is a white Southerner acting in support of reconstruction after the Civil War, often for private gain.
3.) Ain’t that a heap of bunkum! (21st century version: What a pile of s@#t!)
We know it as bunk today. But bunkum dates back to 1845, often attributed to a congressman’s claim that an irrelevant speech he gave was only meant for the people of Buncombe, NC.
4.) Enough of your palaver and carpet-bagging! (21st century version: I’m tired of your corrupt bulls#@t!)
Post-Civil War, carpetbaggers were Northerners who moved to the South for private gain – but history shows that while some were corrupt, others helped rebuild the Southern economy.
5.) “I do not believe I could learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight.” – Mark Twain on Lilian Aldrich (wife of poet Thomas Bailer Aldrich)
Mark Twain seemed to be friends with the Aldriches in the late 1800s, so it’s unclear what the context of this quote is. But it is clear that Mark Twain was a master of the witty insult.
Of course, if you’re not particular about whether your insults are American or British, you can always build your own 1800s insult using handy cheat-sheets like this one.