Jonathon Green – visit his website here – is the English language’s leading lexicographer of slang. His Green’s Dictionary of Slang is quite simply the most comprehensive and authorative work on slang ever published. Today, Jonathon looks at the many and various ways that townies in Britain and America insult their rural cousins…
Peasant. Simple word. Comes from Anglo-Norman paisant (or one of its variant spellings) and parallels modern French paysan, i.e. pays-an, inhabitant of the country(side). Ultimately rooted ino post-classical Latin pagensis which meant of or relating to the country or a country district.
Slang, as ever, is less kind. Urban to its core, never happier than on the concrete, wary of anything involving trees and fields, slang’s take on peasant is invariably derogatory. Stupid, knuckle-dragging, naïve, lost in every sense in the big city. Though in fairness, slang didn’t originate the concept. The French word already denoted a rustic lunkhead in the 12th century. Slang merely followed suit, and added, in its way, a number of synonyms. And those synonyms, as with any of slang’s central themes, can be broken down into groups. Let us see.
Country, another neutral term, gains a variety of negative meanings once it turns compound. There is the 18C country cokes (from cokes, a fool), the country cracker (which extends the basic cracker [see below]), the country gawk (from gawk, itself a country bumpkin), the country yap (see Out-of Towners), the country hick (and the wood hick), the country Ike, Jack, Johnny and Johnny Raw, i.e. naive (all from the proper names) , the country jay (see Animals), the country jerk, the country loper and the country put (who is easily ‘put upon’). The bush-hog and bush-head refer to the rural flora, as does the boonie, which comes from boondocks (from Tagalog bunduk, a mountain) originally used by US military to mean the field, the bush, the jungle, or anywhere the troops operate. There’s the clay-eater, referring to a poor white, specifically as living in North or South Carolina or Georgia, whose diet might really consist of clay, more nutritious foodstuffs being beyond their pockets. Dirt-eater or –dobber are synonymous. Localisms also underpin the buckeye (Aesculus glabra, the American horse chestnut), which flourishes in Ohio and means both a native of the State as well as a rustic.
Alongside hick, America’s term of choice, especially for poor, Southern, usually racist whites, is cracker. The word comes from crack, to boast or brag. As George Cochrane explained them in 1766, their’s was ‘a name they have got from being great boasters, they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.’
Crops and Comestibles:
Down on the farm you are, it seems, what you grow as well as what you eat. Thus the peasant can be a corncob or corncobber, a cornhole (though that usually suggests a more . . . anatomical image), a buckwheat, a wheat, a straw, a tree, a wool or woollyback (also meaning a sheep) and a hayseed. Then there’s the hayfoot, originally military and based on the drill sergeant’s placing of a piece of hay and one of straw in the right and left boots of rustic recruits so that otherwise ignorant farmboys could learn the difference. From the vegetable patch come the turnip, the carrot, the rutabaga (UK swede) and the spud. Chaw-bacon refers to poverty’s porcine staple. Finally, playing on the standard use of thick and slang thick, meaning stupid, is loblolly, a thick gruel, which can mean both the dish and its rustic consumer. It seems to come from dialect lob, to bubble while boiling, esp. of a thick substance like porridge plus the Devonian lolly, food boiled in a pot.
The Daily Grind:
The lexicographer’s task is to show rather than to tell. I therefore make no comment as to the use of sheep-shagger to describe the simple countryman. Nor yet hog rubber nor pig puncher. This is not, however, the petting zoo. Tit puller refers to the milking of cows. There are also bull-driver, goat-roper, squirrel-shooter or -popper) and finally rabbit choker. Then it’s off beyond the farmyard and into the surrounding fields and trees. Briar- and clodhopper, bogtrotter, clover-kicker, gulley– or puddle-jumper, sod-buster, ridgerunner, stump– or stubble-jumper. Shitkicker is self-evident, as is the less common turdkicker. The rural round further underpins fodder-forker, haymaker, railsplitter, plowhandle and plow jockey. As it does cherry- and pea-picker, pumpkin roller and swede-basher. And farmer pure and simple is found in slang as a backward, unsophisticated individual.
Some names, it has been decreed, are automatically ‘country’: Clem, Reuben and Rube (which gives the traditional carny-man’s warning of approaching, angry suckers, Hey Rube!), Hiram, Ike and Jeeter (from Jeeter Lester, the poor White protagonist of Erskine Caldwell’s novel Tobacco Road ). There are also Enoch, Gomer, Jabe, Jack, Jasper, Jeff, Jehu, Josh, Ralph and Rufus. Less obvious are hob (from Robin), hick, which while being one of the best-known names for peasant is not usually associated with its origin, Dick; hodge (from Roger). and benny, used by British troops to characterize the Falkland Islanders, and taken from the dungareed, woolly-hatted odd-job-man of Crossroads, the immortal Benny Hawkins.
Animals come with the territory. There are apes, possums, squabs (from squab, a young, unfledged bird), scissorbills and dog-boobies (which uses another peasant word: booby, usually a fool; other rural fools being the gink, the gawk, the flat – who is not ‘sharp’ – the joskin, the hunk and the goof). There is the jay, noted, inter alia, for its noisiness and bright colouring, and its boorishness towards other birds. And, back in the States, the peckerwood, which reverses woodpecker, specifically the red woodpecker, symbol of whites, rather than the black crow, symbol of blacks.
Happiest though they are begirt by mud and animal droppings, even the peasant yearns occasionally for the bright lights. Thus was born the rubberneck. This admirable terms stems from the image of the gawping vistor straining to gaze aloft at New York’s towering peaks. Its synonym is boing-boing (from the stretching rubber), and the term brings the rubberneck wagon, a sightseeing bus, and the rubberneck ride, the sightseeing tour. Less imagistic is the yap, apparently from yelping dogs, or rather squawking tourists, which also suggests an gaping, awestruck yap, or mouth. Thus the yap asylum: the nightclub.
Ask Mr Slang – Jonathon Green answers your slang questions!
image ©Gabriel Green
This one has bothered me for some time, but has Mr Green got any idea about the etymology of bare as in “There was bare girls at the party” and “I’ve got bare skills”?
I first heard it used among working class African-Caribbean students at the college I was working at in south London about 10 years ago, but it’s probably been knocking around longer. It’s used to mean “lots” or “many” but also as an adverb intensifier like “really” or “very”. I’d love to know where it comes from.
Mr Slang answers:
bare, which is also found as bere, is an import from the Caribbean. It began life as a Bajan (Barbados) word meaning ‘nothing but’, i.e. ‘too much of’ and links back to and plays on the standard English barely (enough). It seems to have emerged in the UK in the late Nineties, first among black and then all teens, who use it to mean ‘many’ or ‘lots of’.
For ‘bare’ examples, I offer a 2003 interview with Dizzee Rascal in Vice Magazine:
I got kicked out of bare schools. […] Bare people were getting pregnant around me in the manor, getme? Bare girls were getting breeded up. […] There’s just so many talented people but road gets a hold of them, bare people I know could have made it. […] One little thing gets out, gets changed, changed, by the time it goes from two people to bare people. […] Oh yeah I’ve heard bare times that I’ve been shot.
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