Friday, March 27, 2015

`You're Not Those, Are You?"

I knew Yiddish was rich in words to describe the infinitely fine gradations of human foolishness, from the long-domesticated schlemiel and shlimazel through shmendrik, yutz, shnook and draykop. Those are merely the synonyms for fool known to one non-Jewish American. But foolishness is pan-human and generously distributed. No group or language has a lock on it. Consider the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (2009), the first thesaurus to arrange words by meaning in the order of their first recorded usage. Last year, the linguist David Crystal published Words in Time and Place, a sampler drawn from the Thesaurus and arranged according to fifteen themes, including “From dizzy to numpty: Words for a Fool.” Crystal gives ninety-three examples, and notes they do not include the OED’s forty words in the “weak intellect” category and more than two-hundred under “blockhead.” He writes in his introduction to the category: 

“The most creative period for `fool’-words was the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which introduced almost half the words in this chapter’s list. The least . . . was the `polite’ eighteenth century, which provides only two examples — a dip which can’t be entirely explained by limited lexicographical coverage of that period. Things pick up again in the nineteenth century, with novelists reflecting everyday usage and journalists reporting it, and this continues in the twentieth century. . .” 

The first word in Crystal’s list is dizzy, a direct borrow from Old English. It’s a noun, not an adjective, and simply means “fool.” What follows is a selection from Crystal's list arranged chronologically and chosen because they amuse me: God’s ape, saddle-goose, hoddypeak, goff, ninnyhammer, plume of feathers, gowk, fooliaminy, dosser-head, hulver-head, Jack Adams, mud, suck-egg, wump, B.F. (for Bloody Fool), gobdaw and schmoll (“thought to be from Yiddish shmol, `narrow’”). Mysteriously, Crystal omits three of my favorite entries in the English taxonomy of fools. In The Bank Dick (1940), that other great linguist, W.C. Fields, in the role of Egbert Sousé ("accent grave over the e"), says to his future son-in-law, Og Oggilby (played by Grady Sutton): “Don’t be a luddy-duddy. Don’t be a mooncalf. Don’t be a jabbernowl. You’re not those, are you?” 

[Be sure to consult Crystal’s book if only for the chapter devoted to synonyms for drunk, including reeling ripe, owl-eyed, suckey, muckibus, blootered, elephant trunk (Cockney rhyming slang), spiflicated, swacked, stocious, tired and emotional, and rat-arsed. Disappointingly, no shit-faced.]


Chuck Kelly said...

These are adjectives for drunken rather than synonyms for drunk, but I've always liked 'knee-walking,' 'commode-hugging,' and snockered.

Subbuteo said...

I've always enjoyed the word "dullard" for fool, as in "a conspiracy of dullards" or, again, "lame brain" which has pleasing internal rhyme.

For being drunk the words which I find particularly felicitous include "wankered", "bladdered" or "shit-faced" These from the other side of the herring pond of course.

Place to stand... said...

I love from this side of the herring pond ....'namby pamby' - for being a bet wet and my latest overused - 'hissy fit' for grown up tantrum.

Drunk - tanked ? Plastered.

Hugely enjoyable and I am off to have a butchers at the David Crystal

Subbuteo said...

And, of course, how could I forget "fuckwit"? - always makes me chuckle. So expressive!

sunt_lacrimae_rerum said...

Thank you for mentioning "The Bank Dick" and the wonderful Grady Sutton who is matched so nicely with Una Merkel.

And--referring back to the Beatles (you know what I mean, I trust) --didn't they coin "fooligan" (I must check the OED) which is a wonderful blend of "fool" and "hooligan".