5 Insults That Didn’t Start Out That Way

August 27, 2021

View of a real bunghole of a barrel.
A real bunghole

Insults can hurt, but these five didn’t start that way. They were harmless and mundane, and then, over the passage of time, they morphed into a whole new meaning. The next time someone tries to hurl a few of these at you, at least you’ll be able to tell them where they came from. Maybe it will end with a laugh — or a throw down.

Bung Hole

A “bunghole” is a derogatory term fueled in popular culture by Beavis and Butthead in the mid-1990s, but its vulgar origin dates back to the 17th century.

The slang meaning of the word bunghole refers to the anus, and it’s also used as a general insult that is similar to “idiot.” But the original meaning of the word bunghole, which is still used today, refers to a hole in a barrel used for removing liquid. Consequently, the stopper that goes in the hole is called a bung. There’s even a tool for removing a bung from the bunghole of a metal barrel, and it’s called a bung wrench. But that’s not all. Bungholes are even found in the bottom of boats to drain water. How else would you get liquid out of a container without a bunghole?

A railroad water tower to illustrate where the insult, jerk, may have come from.

Jerk

A “jerk,” in slang terms, refers to a person regarded with contempt that is stupid or ignorant.

The origin of this insult is believed to have come from the glory days of railroad travel. Steam trains would have to stop at regular intervals to take on water for the train’s boilers. Water towers were built along the line to supply the needed water, but in some spots, train crews would have to get water from a nearby creek or stream when a tower was unavailable. Water was then “jerked” or pulled from the river by the train crew. The towns around these areas became “jerkwater” towns or “jerkwater” lines known as rural and backward. The “jerks” in this case could have been referring to the people in the town or the crews pulling the water. That part is still unclear.

Another explanation says the “jerk” was the man in charge of filling the boilers of the train at a water station. To fill the boilers, a man would need to pull or jerk on a chain that got the water flowing from the tower. These men became known as “jerks.” How this turned into an insult is also not clear.

The soda jerk, who worked at soda fountains in the early 1900s, was immune to the negative connotation of the slang “jerk.” They were called soda jerks because of the way they would jerk the handle of the soda fountain to add soda water to flavored syrup. I’m sure they were relieved.

A dunce, one of the insults used to describe followers of John Duns Scotus.

Dunce

A dunce refers to a person that is considered “stupid” or slow in learning. The origin of this word actually came from a very smart man, John Duns Scotus. Scotus was a respected philosopher and theologian in the late 1200s. His philosophical teachings became known as “Scotism,” and his devout followers became known as “Dunsmen.” Scotus even advocated wearing pointed hats for him and his followers as a display of their intelligence.

Things began to change in the 1500s due to the Renaissance, however, and Scotus’s teachings were losing favor because of the alternative views of the time and the complexity of Scotus’s philosophy. The Dunsmen, or Duns as they were also known during that time, still followed his line of thinking. They became associated with either being ignorant or stubborn for not accepting the new ways of thinking. The pointy hats and the Duns garnered the term “dunce,” which meant “stupid.” The dunce cap was later used in schools for either a child acting up or a slow learner who just couldn’t get their thinking straight.

Hussy

The word “hussy” is a term that really isn’t used so much anymore, but its origins are still interesting, especially for what it originally meant.

Its meaning today is “an impudent or immoral woman” and is usually associated with a single woman. But the original meaning for the term “hussy” actually referred to a housewife or the woman that ran the household. It was used as far back as the 1520s and became a contraction of “husewif,” the Middle English word for housewife. By the 1650s, the term had extended to any woman whose behavior was questionable. The meaning evolved again by the 1700s when it was meant for women who were considered immoral or even suspected of being immoral, hence the insult.

A knucklehead on a railroad coupling that became an insult.

Knucklehead

A “knucklehead” is yet another term for a stupid person (there seems to be a lot of those), but in 1869 it was considered a mechanical coupling device used in the railroad industry.

The modern usage of the insult, “knucklehead,” is believed to have come from World War II training posters. R.F. Knucklehead was the fictitious poster child for the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942 that told what someone shouldn’t do. These “Don’t” posters were put up around training air bases at the time to inform trainees what not to do.

One example comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary quoting a story from Life magazine: “Everything Knucklehead does is wrong and ends in disaster. He endures one spectacular crash after another so that the students at the Gulf Coast Air Force Training Center may profit by his mistakes, and it looks now as if there will be no let-up in his agony.” (Life, May 25, 1942)

Incidentally, a knucklehead also refers to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine because of the shape of its rocker boxes. I wouldn’t go around calling one of those stupid if you saw it.

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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