Learn how to insult people like Thaddeus Stevens does in ‘Lincoln’

© KarSol - Fotolia.comThe 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.

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Jock, meathead, and other words used to describe Ryan Lochte

(c) MacX - Fotolia

Part of what makes the Olympics so riveting is our voracious, Michael Phelps-sized appetites for controversy. From bad-attitude badminton players to the trending topic of Gabby Douglas’s hair, we can’t seem to get enough of Olympic-inspired drama. As viewers, we judge and score the athletes from afar (“She wore that much mascara for a race?!” or “They gave a 9.5 to that guy who runs like Charlie Chaplin?!”) like the Olympian gods from on high.

One of America’s favorite Olympians to watch was Ryan Lochte: Will he win another gold? Is he better than Michael Phelps? What ridiculous thing will he say next in an interview? His interviews were so bad, they became an Internet sensation of their own

What followed was a slew of articles calling Lochte “more brawn than brains,” a jock, a meathead, and even sexy but dumb. Now, I won’t defend everything Lochte has said or done. But I will say I’ve never been a huge fan of labels like jock or meathead. So where do these words come from? Well, they’re certainly nothing new. The term jock came into use in the 1950s or 60s and is actually shortened from jockstrap. Meathead probably goes as far back as the 1860s and is quite literal in its origins (a head made of meat), but rose to popularity thanks to All in the Family. (Interestingly, nerd also rose to prominence in the early 1950s, and sissy dates all the way back to the late 1800s.)

In other words, we still rely on old-fashioned words and thinking to fit people who are different from us into neat little boxes, because we’re too lazy to deal with the fact that nobody is that simple. If we’re going to have high expectations around cultivating Olympians who are well-rounded citizens for life — not just heroic athletes for two weeks every four years — we need to have more meaningful discussions. We can’t just criticize China’s Olympic program and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done.

I remember a moving NPR piece from 2008 that looked at what happened to Olympians after their prime — especially the vast majority who never win a medal. They give their bodies and their best years in pursuit of something bigger than themselves. But when it’s all over, they have the extremely difficult struggle of trying to find out who they are when they can no longer do what has defined them their whole lives. Ryan Lochte isn’t going to be able to avoid the question Michael Phelps is facing now, and that so many Olympians have faced before: what next? (After all, partying and appearing on The Bachelor or Dancing With the Stars aren’t long-term plans.) Jock or not, I wish him the best.