A short history of Shakespearean insults

Being puppy-headed isn't as adorable as it sounds

(Image credit: Thinkstock)

1. Assinego

Assinego, also spelled asinego, is "a little ass" or "foolish fellow." The word comes from the Spanish asnico, diminutive of asno, "ass."

Example: Thersites: "Ay, do, do; thou sodden-witted lord! thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows; an assinego may tutor thee."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

— Act 2. Scene I, Troiles and Cressida

2. Bed-presser

A bed-presser is someone who's lazy and loves their bed. Other old-timey synonyms for sluggard include idlesby, loll-poop, curry-favel, and, our favorite, loitersack.

Example: Prince Henry: "I'll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,— "

— Act 2. Scene IV, Henry IV, Part 1

3. Bull's pizzle

A starveling is someone who is starving but probably means a weakling here. An elf-skin is "a man of shrivelled and shrunken form," says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A neat's tongue is a tongue of cow or ox, where neat is an obsolete term for a "domestic bovine animal," and a stock-fish is fish "cured by splitting and drying hard without salt," perhaps with the idea of something dried up and shriveled. Finally, a bull's pizzle is a bull's penis. The word pizzle comes from a Low German word meaning "tendon," and is now mostly used in Australia and New Zealand, according to the OED. Penis, in case you were wondering, is Latin in origin.

Example: Falstaff: "'Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat's tongue, you bull's pizzle, you stock-fish!"

— Act 2. Scene IV, Henry IV, Part 1

4. Cullion

A cullion is "a contemptible fellow; a rascal." An earlier meaning is "testicle," coming from the Latin culleus, "bag." See also cully and cojones.

Example: Queen: "Away, base cullions!"

— Act 1. Scene III, Henry VI, Part 2

5. Fustilarian

A scullion is "a servant who cleans pots and kettles, and does other menial service in the kitchen or scullery," a rampallion is a villain or rascal, and a fustilarian is a scoundrel. Fustilarian comes from fustilugs, "an unattractive, grossly overweight person." Fustilugs comes from a combination of fusty, musty or lacking freshness, and lug, "anything that moves slowly or with difficulty." Catastrophe here refers to "the posteriors," as the OED puts it. So I'll tickle your catastrophe means something like "I'll kick your ass."

Example: Falstaff: "Away, you scullion! you rampallion! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe."

— Act 2. Scene I, Henry IV, Part 2

6. Harebrained

Harebrained means having "no more brain than a hare." Shakespeare's is the earliest recorded use of this word, which is now often associated with the phrase harebrained scheme. The earliest mention of harebrained scheme we found was from an 1892 New York Times article: "Of course this is nonsensical, but it appears to have a certain excuse in the fact that the Queen did harbor some such harebrained scheme, and actually summoned Devonshire to Osborne House to discuss it."

Example: Charles: "Let's leave this town; for they are hare-brain'd slaves, / And hunger will enforce them to be more eager."

Act 1. Scene II, Henry VI, Part 1

7. Hobby-horse

In this context a hobby-horse is a loose woman or prostitute, according to Gordon H. Williams's Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. The hobby-horse was "one of the principal performers in a morris-dance," which says Williams, was "notorious for licentious behaviour under the mask of Maygaming."

Example: Leontes: "My wife's a hobby-horse, deserves a name / As rank as any flax-wench that puts to/ Before her troth-plight: say't and justify't."

— Act 1. Scene II, Winter's Tale

8. Lily-livered

Lily-livered means cowardly or timid, and this use in Macbeth seems to be the earliest. Shakespeare seemed to also be the first to use lily to mean pale or bloodless. During Elizabethan times, the liver was believed to be the "seat of love and passion," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. As a "healthy liver is typically dark reddish-brown," a pale liver is presumably unhealthy and weak.

Example: Macbeth: "Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, / Thou lily-liver'd boy."

Act 5. Scene III, Macbeth

9. Puppy-headed

Being puppy-headed means being stupid, like a puppy. While puppy at first meant "a small dog kept as a lady's pet or plaything; a lapdog," says the OED, by Shakespeare's time it meant "a young dog." In the quote Trinculo is referring to Caliban, "a 'savage and deformed' slave of Prospero, represented as the offspring of the devil and the witch Sycorax," and "figuratively, a person of a low, bestial nature."

Example: Trinculo: "I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed monster."

Act 2. Scene II, The Tempest

10. Three-suited

Three-suited means having "only three suits of clothes," and therefore being "beggarly," or so petty or paltry "as to deserve contempt." Broken meat refers to "fragments of meat" left after a meal. Worsted stockings seem to be lower quality stockings.

Example: Kent: "A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave."

Act 2. Scene II, King Lear

Not insulting enough? Check out these, these, and finally these as told by, what else, cats. Also be sure to see these Wordnik-made lists, Slings and Arrows, 135 Offensive Shakespearean Terms, and the list of the day, Knaves, Rogues, and Stewed Prunes. For some now-common words and phrases that the Bard coined or popularized, revisit last year's post.

More from Wordnik...

* 11 words from Charles Dickens

* Words coined by Lewis Carroll

* The words of Downton Abbey, season 3

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Angela Tung's essays on language and culture have appeared at Mental Floss, Quartz, Salon, The Week, The Weeklings, and Wordnik. Her personal essays have appeared at The Frisky, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere.