"Episode 62: The Etymology of Insults"

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How did 'snake-oil salesman' become a term for a swindler? It's a complex story.

How was 'asshat' formed? It's about what you'd expect.

Today we're getting into the intricacies of vulgarities.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: some terms for people and things better avoided. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point. We all know it's unwise to buy snake oil from snake-oil salesmen, but we all also know that there's nothing truly reptilian involved with either the oil or the purveyor, which naturally leads to this question, who put the snake in snake oil? Or did the term originally have to do with the scaly slithery ones? Ammon fills us in.

Ammon Shea: English is this wonderful descriptive language. And one of the things that's so enjoyable about it is that it mixes both the figurative and the literal in kind of equal measure sometimes. And so we have a lot terms and words like the one that comes to mind is snake oil, which kind of raises the question of, does snake oil actually come from snakes? And as is so often the answer to this is either yes or yes. You probably wish you hadn't asked the question, but snake oil is not actually used in the even semi-literal sense anymore. It's used mostly with the meaning of, we define it as "poppycock or bunkum," meaning something that is untrue.

Emily Brewster: But you're saying it did originally refer to oil derived from the body of a snake?

Ammon Shea: Well, the earliest meaning that we have is we define it as: any of various substance or mixtures sold as by a traveling medicine show, as medicine, usually without regard to their medical worth or properties. Which is not actually saying that there was snake oil in this, however, in the earliest use of it where people did try to use snake oil in some way. Early on, going back to the early 17th century, there are records saying Pliny the Elder in the History of the World, he has a couple of instances where he talks about the grease of snakes.

Peter Sokolowski: Now that would be a translation of Pliny.

Ammon Shea: Right? Translation of Pliny translated by Philemon Holland, which is a famous translation in 1934. Pliny of course was well, well, before. And there're various ailments, you would take grease of a snake and like rub it in your eyes.

Pliny had all kinds of really unappetizing remedies in his History of the World. He talked about things you would use in your ear, like the urine of a female goat, as long as it warm. Again, the dung of a she-goat, as long as it's mixed with hog grease, urine of a calf, which has to be mixed with vinegar. And it's only as long as the animal had never eaten grass, sperm of a boar taken from a sow, as long as it hasn't actually touched the ground. And these are all remedies, home remedies of the early 17th century are translated in the early 17th century. And so snake oil kind of poured into your ear or into your eye. It fits right in there.

Peter Sokolowski: This is going back to essentially Roman era medical theories that were pre-scientific.

Ammon Shea: Right. Although-

Peter Sokolowski: Modern,

Ammon Shea: A lot of things that we would think of as please let that be pre-scientific and it lasted for a long time. I mean, if you look in the Oxford English Dictionary, I think one of the words they have in there is puppy water, which was urine of a puppy used as a cosmetic.

Emily Brewster: That one's going to come back. I'm going to make a prediction right here.

Ammon Shea: I think another word in the Oxford English dictionary was lant, which was stale urine, which was used to, ostensibly and I'm using ostensibly very broadly, improve the flavor of beer. It was actually lantified, I think was a term basically you're putting urine into beer. And these are words that are current well through the 19th century. These are not Roman-era terms, so we are doing all kinds of horrible things with food and substances from other animals. So snake oil really fits right in there. And so once we get to the kind of earliest use of it in modern use it's in the 18th century and people did have rattle snake oil was, the main one. And it was typically that you would take a dead rattle snake and you was soak good in oil. And then you would use the oil for various remedies. However, it's not that easy to soak a rattlesnake in oil, particularly if the snake doesn't feel like being soaked up in oil. So people would then sell snake oil in many forms. And a lot of times it was just fake. It was also used as a synonym for liquor in the 19th century and the citation, "We are informed that one of our citizens got off of his “K-Base”—uncertain what that is—"and went home last Sunday night while under the influence of snake-oil and turned the house out of doors". That's the citation from 1885 in the Leonardville Monitor from Kansas. And then at the end of the 19th century, we started to see snake oil being used specifically as a mixture sold as medicine, without regards with medical worth. And we have citations from about the same time as when it was being used as a synonym for liquor, the 1880s, "the snake-oil venders paid our town a visit on Thursday and by their oily ways snaked a good many 50 cent pieces away with them". And then shortly after that, it takes on its entirely figurative meeting of just kind of poppycock or bunkum.

Peter Sokolowski: And then connected with salesman.

Ammon Shea: Right, snake oil salesman is the common turn of phrase.

Emily Brewster: Interesting. Now Jonathan Green of Green's Dictionary of Slang, defines oil merchant as being a U.S slang term, that means a flatterer or swindler.

Ammon Shea: Oh, I wonder if that's connected.

Emily Brewster: I assume it is, right. An oil merchant.

Ammon Shea: That sounds like it

Peter Sokolowski: You said flatterer right? And so we have that term oleaginous and just oily can sometimes mean flattering.

Emily Brewster: Right, and also unctuous.

Peter Sokolowski: Unctuous. All of these terms have a negative connotation.

Emily Brewster: That's right. The idea is you're massaging people into believing you. Right. You're telling them things that they want to hear so that they will trust you and believe you.

Peter Sokolowski: And we even say slick in that way.

Emily Brewster: Right, right.

Ammon Shea: Snake oil, I guess it did at one point probably have some oil from some snake in it, in its composition, but you'll be glad to know that the modern day snake oil is a hundred percent free of any snake.

Emily Brewster: Unless it's a figurative snake, right. You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster, we'll be right back with the story behind a modern insult. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea, do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Of all the euphonious insults out there. Asshat has I think a particular charm. We won't say that we think you should lob it about indiscriminately, but we will say it's an interesting item in the language that's worth investigating. Ahead Ammon takes on the task.

Ammon Shea: One of the many ineffable pleasures of working in lexicography and there really are, are many such pleasures, but just one of them is when we are given the opportunity to kind of really pay close attention to the glorious of the English language, the really high noble language and dig deep into the meanings and the origins of things like this. And I'm talking of course, about words like, well, asshat is the first example that comes to mind, which is one of the more recent additions to our dictionary. But is no less deserving of kind of examination than any other word. So, we do define asshat and we label it as, well, vulgar slang, because it is. The plural, for anyone who's wondering about this, is asshats, not asses hat. And we define it as "a stupid, annoying or detestable person." Very similarly as a lot of semantic overlap with another word, which shares the initial four letters.

It's a recent addition to our language. It's another example of a word coming up recently and yet getting enough currency in the language almost immediately, that is deserving of being entered and defined. Do you guys use asshat in daily conversation?

Peter Sokolowski: I can't say I do. I find it incredibly colorful and I love it. It may be that, it's a little bit more recent and that's an interesting thing. You pick up your habits earlier in life. And so I might associate it with maybe people younger than me.

Emily Brewster: I think I use it, but mostly sort of spoken on my breath. I really like the repetition of the vowels. I think it's a euphonious word hat. I think it's more satisfying to say than it's a whole related synonym.

Ammon Shea: I agree with you, Peter. It is kind of language of people younger than I am. I came across in use by lexicographer. And this is, I have to say one of my favorite citations that I've ever entered anywhere, which was Steve Kleinedler. Of course, the former editor in chief of American Heritage Dictionary, a long time friend of Merriam and a great lexicographer. And he was being interviewed about pronoun usage, about the singular they I think, and how people decide their pronouns, and his response to the question about pronoun usage. He said, "In the case of pronoun usage, it really comes down to, are you being a nice person or an asshat?" And it really is a great citation because it really demonstrates the use and the meaning of the word very nicely. And it's also, germane to the other kind of lexicographic things that we're interested in. And I felt like Steve used it in a nice trenchant way. It does have a real ring to it, asshat has a certain kind of heft as an insult. And one of the things that's very interesting about it is, that it is so new. And as far as we've been able to tell dates, the very most dates back to the late 1990s, and we found a couple of citation in Usenet groups, like in 1999, there was an advertisement, somebody was selling action figures from the CHiPs TV show, and they were selling "Ponch, John Sarge, Jimmy Squeaks, and then that stupid asshat Eric Mouse." One of the things about this kind of language is that, in most cases it probably comes up in spoken form rather than been informed. So we don't exactly know when asshat goes back, but it seems unlikely it goes back substantially more than the late 1990s. Now what's curious about this to me is that there's a very similar word asshead, which has been around for about 500 years. So we've embraced asshead for hundreds and hundreds of years. There's a lovely citation from Thomas Becon, News Out of Heaven, Both Pleasant and Joyful, 154: "They think it a hundred years, if he preacheth but half an hour, so little pleasure have these assheads in hearing the glorious and blessed word of God." So this is a long time, well established pejorative in the English language. So why is it that asshead took so thoroughly and it took us so long to get around to using asshat? Just the unfairness of English?

Emily Brewster: I don't know because the word hat does have some employment as a term of insult, right? Hat has been used with a variety of meanings other than the article of adornment for one's head.

Ammon Shea: It seems like it's a useful end of a word. It was a great compound.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, there's also a difference between frequency and the length of time a word has been in the language. So if asshead's been around for a long time, but it's not very common, it's not very commonly used today certainly. It seems a little archaic to me.

Emily Brewster: I knew we were going to talk about this and I was trying to come up with other hat insults, but it made me think about some other compounding forms that I think are increasingly used. One is skillet and pants, hat, skillet, and pants. These days are just, they're useful in attaching to terms of insult.

Ammon Shea: I'm unfamiliar with the skillet ones. What are they?

Emily Brewster: Well. Fuck skillet is what comes to my mind. I don't know. Maybe that's just among my friends

Ammon Shea: That is new to me. I like it. Yeah. And pants I hesitate to ask.

Emily Brewster: Well, pants is a classic comedic term. We all know that right.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: Comes from commedia dell'arte. It's the pantalones, it's like pants is funny.

Ammon Shea: It is a British turn of phrases "gone pants," it's gone wrong. It's not at all used in the U.S., but pants does have this currency as something unfortunate having happened.

Emily Brewster: I feel like a hat and pants. They're both articles of clothing or accessorizing. Hat seems to lend itself to this. It seems more jocular than head. Asshat, it still is mean, but seems funnier than asshead.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. But there's also what I think is just starting to come into play is then the extended form of asshattery, which we do not yet define, it does not have sufficient currency in the language. We don't know if it's going to stick around because you know, one of the things that's very difficult about words like this is they crop up. They're maybe suddenly very popular, but it's never initially obvious or it's rarely initially obvious if the word is going to stick around sufficiently that it warrants being put into our or any other dictionary, there are obvious exceptions to this, but it seems like asshat pretty quickly achieved that level of currency, asshattery, we don't know yet. The other things that I think is kind of interesting about this is the use of asshat of ass in the beginning of the word, as opposed to the end. And you see ass used as a compound infix in a lot of places, a lot of times it's used as an intensifier like, "he was a grown ass man." And that has a very distinct concrete meaning. And it's also gets used as a suffix. And one of the more common ones was badass. A lot of people trace it to the great Melvin Van Peebles's film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, 1970, but there were earlier uses. Sonora Mckellar, a writer in the Antioch Review, Fall, 1967: "Here Comes Them Two Would be Badass Brothers." So ,it dates to the mid sixties at least.

Emily Brewster: And I have to interject and say that one of my earliest joys as a lexicographer was putting the second sense of badass in the dictionary. When I joined Merriam-Webster, we had only the meaning of the word ready to cause or get into trouble. And when we were working on the 11th Collegiate Dictionary, when I was just a baby lexicographer, I defined the second sense of the word, which is "a formidable strength or skill" I think is how it is defined. This was also in the same era of time when I spent a couple days on just ass. I'd been at Merriam-Webster for maybe a year at this point. And I came home one day and really with no self-consciousness, self-awareness at all. I said, I spent the day working on ass, I was exhausted.

Ammon Shea: You spoke truth. So, you know, one of the, the final notes that I'd like to, to mention about this is that this is not something that's obvious from colloquial use from listening to ass, in speech, but people often talk about the importance of punctuation. And, and I feel like, you know, it's kind of a ridiculous thing. Like, "let's eat, grandma," you take out the comma, like you're saying, "let's eat grandmother." And of course you're not, we always can pretty much tell from context what's intended, but there is an exception set, I think, which is when we're talking about sweet asshat. If you say to someone that is a sweet-ass hat, and you put the proper hyphen between sweet and ass; you were talking about a piece of headwear that is of rare magnificence. But, if you take that hyphen out and you make it, that's a sweet asshat, then it's suddenly rife with confusion. Are we talking about a person who is an asshat yet still somehow manages to be a sweet person in spite of their asshattery? Are we talking about something that you wear? The possibility for confusion is significant there.

Emily Brewster: We can't leave a conversation about the word asshat, without talking about the etymology note in the Merriam-Webster.com dictionary by Jim Rader, longtime etymologist at Merriam-Webster. I love this note. I'm going to read it.

Ammon Shea: Please read it.

Emily Brewster: Okay. The seemingly nonsensical linking of ass and hat has a curious prehistory. Examples of the linkage can be found in dialogue lines from late 20th century films. "Anyone found bipedal in five wears his ass for a hat!" This is addressed to the employees of a bank as the robbers leave in Raising Arizona, 1987. "I like your ass, can I wear it as a hat?" a character's parody of a flirtatious advance from City Slickers, 1991. Of more immediate etymological relevance, maybe this dialogue sequence from the television series That 70s Show, Red: "Eric, if you don't want to wear your ass for a hat, you'll get up here. Pronto", Donna responds, "You better go. You know how that ass hat screws up your hair". That episode aired in 2000. The current meaning of asshat may be a reanalysis, perhaps in part based on the expression, have one's head up one's ass, meaning to be obtuse, be insufficiently conscious of one's surrounding perhaps in part due to simple phonetic similarity to asshole.

Ammon Shea: Who can say after listening to that, the English language is going to hell in a hand basket, it's going to hell in a hat, in an asshat.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the dat and all your general dictionary needs visit, merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski, Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

-"Episode 62: The Etymology of Insults"