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The Irish For: Cockwombles and the decline of British insults

The Brexit process should be a golden age for satirists and comedians, but unfortunately, something else has happened, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

This is the latest dispatch from our columnist Darach Ó Séaghdha, author of the award-winning and bestselling Motherfoclóir. Every Sunday morning, Darach will be regaling (re-Gaeling?) us with insights on what the Irish language says about Ireland, our society, our past and our present. Enjoy.

OUR NEIGHBOURS IN the United Kingdom have a glorious tradition of political comedy, especially on television. This covers the gamut of panels of comedians lampooning events to brilliantly scripted satirical shows from Yes, Minister to The Thick of It.

So one would assume that the selection of a new prime minister during the chaotic Brexit process – especially when some of the candidates have colourful track records – would be a golden age for satirists and comedians.

But unfortunately and terrifyingly, something else has happened. A strange and profoundly unwitty form of name-calling has emerged instead.

The general principle is to create a compound word-form combining a hard swear word with a cute animal or quaint object: cockwomble, wankpuffin, jizztrumpet, shitgibbon.

These insults are self-consciously 21st century British in that they sound like minor Harry Potter characters while also delighting in the cocktail of swearing, poshness and twee-ness that made Richard Curtis and Stephen Fry very rich men.

This is a kind of Britishness that sells well “across the pond” and American reportage of this phenomenon has been worshipful and awe-struck. This has led to its perpetuation as English Twitter users have counted on neologisms of this nature to clock up those sweet, sweet retweet numbers from Anglophile American tweeters.

Another factor in their promulgation has been that these words allow British internet users to swear on computer systems that have content blocking software (ever since solving the “Scunthorpe problem” has led to these systems allowing combinations of letters that spell curse words within larger words to be permitted).

It’s especially ironic that in an era when so many Brexit supporters invoke past military victories over Germany – in any context, and at the drop of a hat – that these insults are a feeble imitation of the great German compound insults like Spargeltarzen (asparagus tarzan, a floppy, skinny tall person) Hosensheisser (trouser-soiler) and Backpfeifengesicht (someone whose face invites a slap).

The obvious Irish comparison point to these words is the classic put-down gobshite. It is a compound word and it is self-consciously Irish, but it actually means something.

Gobshite is a combination of the Irish word gob (the beak or bill of a bird, figuratively referring to a person’s mouth) and the Hiberno-English word shite (one of a small club of words that can perform as a noun, verb or adjective).

A gobshite is someone who talks shite, who is full of shite right up to mouth level. It is not interchangeable with eejit or shitehawk; fundamentally meaningless words like cockwomble and shitgibbon can be switched without loss of meaning because they say more about the insulter than the insultee.

Gaeilge doesn’t share Béarla’s Latin vs Anglo-Saxon linguistic tensions where rude and respectable versions of the same word exist – this is best exemplified by bilingual signs telling people to clean up after their dog in English but advising them to “glan suas cac do mhadra” in Irish.

But it does have a wide range of insults which are precise in meaning and therapeutic to say, which we will examine in detail next Sunday.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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