Green’s Dictionary: Seven Deadly Sins of Slang: III. Wrath

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 continues his epic survey of the Seven Deadly Sins of Slang by getting mad, with Wrath…

And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the winepress, even unto the horse bridles, by the space of a thousand and six hundred furlongs.
Revelations 14:19-20

Oh yes, that old-time religion. They may not love you, but who needs love when you’ve got Armageddon? Smitings, lightnings, tramplings, terrible swift swords. What self-respecting deity ever did meek and mild? The Son may turn the other cheek, Father is more hands-on. Wrath starts off Teutonic and is linked to a variety of roots, meaning angry, cruel and twisted, and thus connects to writhe, which adds some serpentine imagery for good measure. The ‘a’ began short, as it remained in Hollywood epics where God, often as enunciated by Mr Heston, is also ‘Gahd’ , but the UK has opted for an o, ‘roth’ or even, classily, ‘rorth’.

But what the OED defines as ‘righteous indignation on the part of the Deity’ becomes quite unrighteous in human heads and hands. A form of lèse-majesté. A sin. It becomes anger. And anger, according to St Basil, is a form of reprehensible temporary madness. Losing it, as the slang would say. Loss – of control, of temper, of emotion, of stability – is as the heart of slang’s take on wrath. Images of explosion. For a lexis that tends to eschew the abstract, anger gets serious attention. A by-product, or perhaps a precursor of aggression, which is always popular with the counter-language.

One may lose one’s bean, one’s bap, one’s lunch or one’s stopper. Explosively, one blows up. As in blow one’s top, topper or cool. Since one can bust one’s boiler (and indeed a blood-vessel or gut) one can also blow off, let off or shoot steam, blow one’s stack, jets, gasket or gauge (preceded by getting one’s gauge up), most of which suggest a more melodramatic era of railway travel. Like the engines, one is bent out of shape. One can blow one’s roof, go up in the air, go to the moon, hit the ceiling or roof and climb or go up the walls. All of which leaves one atop of the house or possibly up in the boughs. After blow comes flip: one’s bean, one’s bananas, one’s lid, one’s cookies and one’s cork.

If not the metaphorical boiler, there is the imagistic head. The cap can be snapped, busted or popped; the gourd can be flipped as can be the wig or top (and a fliptop is a madman). One can be off one’s block and hot in the biscuit. One can do or go off one’s melon, chuck, crack or do a mental, do a loony, go off one’s pannikin (a small container that doubles for the skull) and get one’s dandruff up, which combines a corruption of get one’s dander up and the image of flecks of dandruff rising as one gesticulates with rage. Presumably a more extreme form is get one’s hair off or get one’s wool off, though this latter, being Australian, may apply to the more irascible breeds of sheep.

The body is capable of all sorts of wrathy contortions: anger appears to lead to acrobatics. One may have tight jaws (anger’s gritted teeth). One can get (up) on one’s ear or on one’s elbows; as well as go off on or spin round on one’s ear. One can get one’s hips up on one’s shoulders or in a sling, presumably a synonym for get one’s back up – at which point one also puts one’s victim’s nose out of joint). To get one’s ass on one’s shoulders implies a shrug, which raises one’s shoulders and thus, supposedly, one’s posterior. Still ‘down there’ one may get one’s ass out of joint, have a hair up one’s ass, get one’s crap, shit (or water) hot and fart sparks. To have a chip on one’s shoulder does not imply anger, but to have a cob on, which seems to come from dialect’s cob, a lump and echoes the colloquialism, does.

Meanwhile, an errant garment. Coined in the early 1960s and still popular is get one’s knickers in a twist. Which twist can also be applied to panties, frillies, Tampax, turban, balls, tits and prosaically underwear. The twist can also be a bunch or a wad, and a further uncomfortable option is up your crack. The nuts are also subject to twisting, and indeed knotting, and the face, guts and nose can all be in a knot too. Nor is the underwear or its contents the only symbol of rage. The disarrangement of one’s clothes that may follow a fit of arm-brandishing fury brings in get one’s shirt out (one can thus, transtively, get someone else’s shirt out, reducing them to rage) and it this phrase that gives the better-known shirty. To get one’s rag out or up is synonymous, and leads to lose one’s rag. To lose one’s vest takes us back to underwear, while infants, real or imitative  jump out of their pram. They may also, like the unlamented teppischfresser, Herr Hitler, chew the carpet or simply do a chewy.

There are a number of similes. Mad, in sense of furious rather than insane, gives Ausralia’s mad as a cut snake while American regionalisms include mad as (old Dan) Tucker, mad as hops, as a hornet, a wet hen, a maggot and madder’n snakes in hayin’. Why such entities embody fury is debatable, but they do, as do seven boiled owls and nine hundred dollars. Not to mention a woodheap, and a meat axe, which can also be both savage and wild. In all cases the object in question is like a cock-maggot in a sinkhole. Sore synonymises mad, and offers a range of puns: sore as a boil, a boiled owl, a gum boil, a pup, as sox, and sorer than a mashed thumb. Hot provides more: hot as a (two– or three-dollar or ten-cent) pistol, hot as a bad girl’s dream, as July jam, and naturally as mustard.

Last, and possibly least, a nasty little list of racist stereotyping. The black person as psychotic is a well embedded trope: thus we find a variety of nouns such as African, color, guinea (as in the Guinea Coast) and inevitably nigger. In all cases one can get one’s – up, in other words lose one’s temper. That this can also be applied to one’s Irish or one’s Italian, and that Scottish has been defined as irritable and easily annoyed (caused perhaps by the 17th century Scottish fleas: syphilis?) does not mitigate. At least zorba’d has a certain complexity: Zorba the Greeked = leaked = synonym for pissed = pissed off. One always gets there in the end.

Do you have a question for Mr Slang? Email it to and we’ll send it on to Jonathon.

image ©Gabriel Green
You can buy Green’s Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon’s more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.
Share This Post

About Author Profile: Jonathon Green

Jonathon 'Mr Slang' Green is the world's leading lexicographer of English slang. You can buy Green's Dictionary of Slang, as well as Jonathon's more slimline Chambers Slang Dictionary, plus other entertaining works, at his Amazon page. Jonathon also blogs and Tweets.

12 thoughts on “Green’s Dictionary: Seven Deadly Sins of Slang: III. Wrath

  1. Brit
    March 17, 2011 at 13:18

    At school we used the term ‘ape shit’ for when a teacher lost his rag, as in ‘Muggsy went ape shit’ again. In fact one of the teachers actually had the nickname ‘Apeshit’ on account of his doing it so often.

    What about ‘throw a wobbly’ – is that just cos your body wobbles when you’re shouting?

  2. Gaw
    March 17, 2011 at 13:30

    Thanks – a great discussion!

    I was going to ask you about ‘bate’, as in ‘she got in a right old bate’. However, having looked it up online to check it actually was slang, I see ‘bate’ can refer to the action of a tethered falcon in a flap. So I assume it’s from that. We used it at school where it was a demotic term so I’m surprised at its gentlemanly origin.

    March 17, 2011 at 14:31

    Brit, Gaw

    The problems of space I’m afraid. I had apeshit and indeed go ape up there for a while, and they fell by the word-counted wayside. Throw a wobbly is defined in GDoS as as ‘have a fit of nerves, a panic’ and I didn’t extend to that search. There really are hundreds of ‘wrath’-related terms.

    Bait (and indeed baity): That one too was, reluctantly, among the rejects. The etymology is 16C bait, to be snarling and snapping, like a dog endeavouring to break its chain and attack a persecutor. I always think of it as very British schoolboy yarn. Anstey uses it in Vice Versa (1882) and Kipling in Stalky & Co (1899) notably in ‘The Moral Reformers’, that wonderful tale of the bullies bullied. (And what are the tortures of ‘the key’ and brush drill’, I have been wondering for 53 years). It’s in Jennings, of course, and in Molesworth.

  4. Gaw
    March 17, 2011 at 14:37

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten about Molesworth and his talent for getting people in an aweful bate.

  5. Brit
    March 17, 2011 at 15:40

    What about ‘throw a Paddy’ – an anti-Irish slur as per your last paragraph?

      March 18, 2011 at 10:23

      What indeed. I should obviously get ‘what Paddy gave the drum’, and possibly taken off in the ‘Paddy wagon’. It seems to me that I may have to return to wrath/anger. There’s undoubtedly enough material.

    March 17, 2011 at 16:42

    The disconcerting thing about wrath is that it is incurred, the thought of some person standing close to one and incurring away makes one nervous, I suggest the immediate formation of wrath police ‘the wrice squad’. Penalties ranging from a night in the stocks for the first offence ‘wrence’ thro to three wraths and you’re out, ‘wrout’.
    “What’s wrong with him then”
    “Oh, just a touch of wrout, got himself into a right two and eight”.

    jonathan law
    March 17, 2011 at 17:09

    This is a terrific series. It may not have been your intention, Jonathan, but as it goes on I’m finding it increasingly suggestive from a moral and theological perspective, as well as the obvious linguistic one. Somehow the grotesquerie of slang, the way it literalizes everything into the most physical, in-yer-face terms, seems peculiarly suited to the nature of sin and to its effect on the sinner. Indulged in to any extreme, anger, sloth, gluttony and the rest turn us into cartoon-like creatures — funny, scarey, horribly literal and limited in what we mean. We become an embodiment of the vice, rather than merely exhibiting it. Perhaps this is what all those medieval allegories were trying to say and perhaps it’s what all the slang is saying too. All these poor souls flipping their wigs and blowing off steam, spinning on their ears or knitting their nuts, farting sparks or having their arse on their shoulders — take these pictures literally, and you have some of the more inventive torments in Dante’s Inferno.

    (So, which blog shall I send this to today, hmm?)

      March 18, 2011 at 10:45

      Or indeed Bosch. Very good point. The idea of slang – at least in some of its subsets – being a modern repository of medieval allegories that no longer hold sway is very appealing. I am most grateful: I know that slang doesn’t admit abstract terms to the lexis, but I haven’t hitherto been prompted to wonder how it does deal with such concepts (which of course underpin all the sins). In this case slang, being incapable of (and instinctively distrusting) the soft answer, never even considers turning away wrath; and being unhappy with the abstract reifies it

  8. Worm
    March 17, 2011 at 17:13

    My favourite in that whole list is ‘do a mental’, cousin of course to the schoolboy classic ‘have a spazz’

    March 17, 2011 at 20:25

    Can regular fans start combining weeks? I’d like to see someone with a wild hair up their assbulb.

Comments are closed.