If you can't say anything nice, read this column.
I've collected a smorgasbord of specific words for people who are, well, exceedingly unpleasant. And after reading this column, you'll have no such lack.
Two types of mean people are known by Christmas-centric words — the penny-pinching Scrooge and the party-pooping Grinch. Grinch and Scrooge have more in common than being words for miserable folks: they're eponyms. An eponym is a word derived from a person's name, whether a real person or fictional character. Other common eponyms are leotard, shrapnel, lynch, and boycott. Both Grinch and Scrooge are eponyms from literature.
Charles Dickens introduced the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in his 1843 short story A Christmas Carol, which has been haunting readers and audiences ever since. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) traces Scrooge as an eponym back to at least 1940 and a Notes & Queries article that describes the term: "Old Scrooge, for a killjoy who grudges other people the pleasures that he cannot enjoy himself…"
How the Grinch Stole Christmas appeared in 1957 thanks to the wonderful writer/cartoonist Dr. Seuss (Theodore Seuss Geisel). This word for a killjoy or jerk starting being used for other grinches by at least 1966, as seen in a 1966 Chicago Tribune article: "It's time you faced up to the fact that yes, Virginia, there is a grinch who can steal Christmas. And his name is Fatigue."
Many other fictional meanies are sometimes used as eponyms for nefarious folks, as you know if you've ever called someone a Voldemort, Lex Luthor, or Darth Vader.
Fiction aside, English is full of plenty of other words for folks who probably wouldn't be a hoot if you talked to them at a holiday party or any circumstance whatsoever. The lexicon of beastliness is as sweet as the boors themselves are bitter. So while I hope you avoid all the following types in real life, they do make good company with the rest of your vocabulary.
Around the year 800, a churl was simply a man, especially a husband. Over the centuries, the term spread to serfs and other non-noblemen — such as yokels or bumpkins. By the 1300s, churl had taken on the meaning that stuck, which built on the bumpkin meaning: a rude, nasty fellow with no manners and probably no morals either. This word is no longer common, but churlish is.
This word pretty much defines itself, since nay is an old-fashioned way of saying no, and that's just what a naysayer does. Naysayers shoot down every suggestion, no matter how friendly or promising. Is a new movie worth seeing? A naysayer says nope. Will the weather be good tomorrow? A naysayer says nah. Will I fulfill my hopes and dreams of being Batman? The naysayer says, are you crazy? OK, the naysayer might have a point there, but the point is naysayers doubt everything. There is nothing they can't pooh-pooh.
The original meaning of this term was specifically religious. As the OED puts it, a reprobate was, "A person who has been rejected by God, an unredeemed sinner; spec. a person who has been predestined by God to eternal damnation." That meaning starts appearing in the first half of the 1500s, but by the second half, the meaning that's still in use today appears: "An unruly, reprehensible, degenerate, or wicked person; a rogue." Given the prominence of religion, it's natural that a word for the ungodly would evolve into a word for the immoral in general.
Here's another word with religious roots. A miscreant was originally an infidel in the 1300s. Such non-believers weren't looked upon highly by the church-going crowd, which may be why the term morphed into a word for any person who was subpar from a morality standpoint. This word has varied as far as how serious an insult it is. As part of the OED's definition puts it, a reprobate could be "A villain, scoundrel; a rebel, criminal, or felon" or "a minor offender, reprobate." In other words, this is a one-size-fits-all insult, fit for the truly evil or just the somewhat annoying.
This term is a synonym for one aspect of Scrooges: a skinflint is stingy. You can also call a skinflint a miser or tightwad. Often, the people with the most money are the biggest skinflints: ever notice how it's the super-rich who have the biggest problem with paying taxes? The kind of person who skimps on presents for friends or gives waiters terrible tips is a skinflint. Spending money willy-nilly and running up debt aren't the wisest ideas, but most people manage to find a balance between being a skinflint and a spendthrift: someone who spends money wildly and without caution.
You should also use these words with caution. No one likes to be called a miscreant or Scrooge. I don't mind being called a Darth Vader, though, since a galactic empire is on my Christmas list.
For even more words to describe the worst among us, check out this list: Scrooge, Grinch and Churl: Wonderful Words for Unpleasant People
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
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