What’s an egghead or a freeloader? They were once put-downs or even insults, although today these terms seem meek. But according to Hugh Rawson in his book, Wicked Words, they were formerly unprintable names. Today the expressions that follow are amusing, although some are still somewhat nasty.
Blockhead. A stupid person; in effect, someone with a block of wood for brains. The Peanuts comic series certainly immortalized this label, with the character Charlie Brown perpetually the brunt of Lucy’s stinging verbal jab, “You blockhead!” According to Rawson, “blockhead” dates as far back as 1549, as one of various –head insults. These were served up in many different forms and as visual imagery for the cranium, from its density (“airhead”) and shape (“pinhead”) to its content (“blockhead”). The last was also equated to food and other natural things, in denigrating fashion: “cabbage head”, “cheesehead”, “meathead”, even “pothead”.
Egghead. An intellectual; a studious person. Somewhat in contrast to a blockhead, an “egghead” is nevertheless an attack – on intellectuals. Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat noted for his intellectual demeanour and who ran for president in the 1952 US election, bore the initial brunt of this moniker: “all the eggheads are for Stevenson”, said John Alsop, the brother of syndicated columnists Stewart and Joseph Alsop. The image came to him “of a thin outer shell with mushy white stuff underneath”, writes Rawson. Yet, the use of “egghead” and even of “egg” when referring to a person significantly predates the mid 20th century. Shakespeare, as well as Mother Goose in the nursery rhyme, Humpty Dumpty, were some of the earlier users of this word.
Clean [one’s] clock. To defeat or surpass someone, often expressed as a threat; to thoroughly take someone to task because of a slight or transgression. Rawson cites the term as having originated in railroading through the expression, “clean the clock”, which meant stopping suddenly with the needle on the air gauge falling to zero. The phrase found a further home in agriculture: to “clean [one’s] plow”, which means to beat someone up. Other similar phrases are probably related, such as “clean up on” or “take [someone] to the cleaners” – a total defeat, usually financially.
Wet blanket. Something or someone that ruins or spoils the fun of others; a person whose gloomy nature depresses others. Similar in meaning to “party pooper” and “killjoy” in depicting a pessimist, the expression refers more literally to a blanket moistened enough to put out a fire, thus the relation to dampening something’s effect: “Don’t be a wet blanket; you’re supposed to have fun at parties!” It’s been used on more stately occasions, as in, “Party leaders said the shake-up had thrown a ‘wet blanket’ on the momentum of the Mondale campaign”, as reported in The New York Times, 16 July 1984. Older, figurative use dates back to the 18th century, writes Rawson.
Freeloader. One who lives off others; one who takes advantage of others’ generosity by not giving anything in return. Rawson particularly cites the word’s recent origin, which dates only to 1947. It’s associated most often with taking excessive advantage of free food or entertainment. A “free-luncher” was a person who went to bars to eat the free food but not to buy drinks. Not only used as a noun and a verb (to freeload), the word is also employed as an adjective: the author Saul Bellow writes in Herzog about “my lousy, free-loading bohemian family, all chiselers”.
Worm. A weak or despicable person. The term is often used as a form of verbal abuse. It appeared already in biblical times (“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people”, Bible, Psalms 22:6). As a verb, it implies difficulty in moving when crawling (“They wormed their way along the edge of the forest, with each metre gained feeling like a mile of agony”) or when sliding into a narrow space (“We wormed our bodies between the door and the frame”). It also pertains to other types of activity, such as surreptitiously making one’s way into (“We wormed our way into the party scene”) or obtaining information through persistence (“Being able to worm information out of the authorities is no easy task”). To “worm out” of an obligation is to renege or crawl away from it, and “a can of worms” is always fraught with the potential for a bad experience or failure. A “worm” in the computing world is a self-replicating programme that can have nasty effects. And while being a “bookworm” is not a bad thing, it’s a state that most find unappealing or almost obsessive.
Cad. A vulgar man, especially one whose actions betray his lower-class origin. Cads were seen as having an exaggerated image of themselves, not realizing that they were unfit for relationships with women of a higher social status, according to Rawson. That contrast to high society formed part of teen angst about growing older, as described in the lyrics of “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” from The Sound of Music: The German soldier, Rolf, warns the girl, Liesl, that “eager young lads and roués and cads will offer you food and wine”.
Screw loose. Crazy, dumb, silly, eccentric or mentally unstable; often combined with the verb, to have, as in “have a screw loose”. As Rawson notes, the expression is one of many “folk metaphors” to describe this state (“He’s always had a screw loose”). Other metaphors that further accentuate the idea of being stupid or dumb are “dead between the ears”, “half-baked”, “narrow bandwidth” and the creative “room-temperature I.Q.”, to name a few.
Tattletale. A whistleblower; a child who reveals secrets or informs on others. Originating in the 16th century as “telltale”, it was used as both a noun and an adjective (the latter to denote “revealing”, “indicating” or “betraying”, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Looking for “telltale signs” of something is an oft-used expression. This wicked word has been handed down from generation to generation by children as part of their coming to terms with the ins and outs of growing up. A famous rhyme in both Britain and the United States underlined the precariousness of being a “tattletale” (here in the American version):
Tattle tale tit,
Tattle tale tit,
Your tongue will be split
And every dog will get a bit.
Wuss. A weakling or ineffectual person (pl. wusses or wussies; adj.: wussy; v.: wuss out). According to the OED, the verb means to fail to do or complete something out of fear or lacking confidence (“They wussed out of playing us in football because we’re so big and fast”). Often seen as a combination of wimp and puss, the word’s origins are unknown, but it seems to have first been used in the mid 1970s or early 1980s. Some cite its appearance in the 1982 movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as its true coming out.