Great British insults are dying out – and you’ll miss them when they’re gone

A new survey shows that insults from ‘prat’ to ‘nitwit’ are falling out of favour with Gen Z. It’d be a shame for Brits to lose touch with our tradition of finding creative ways to criticise each other, says Katie Rosseinsky

Monday 13 May 2024 13:36 BST
Traditional British insults like ‘prat’ and ‘plonker’ are falling out of use with Gen Z, according to a new survey
Traditional British insults like ‘prat’ and ‘plonker’ are falling out of use with Gen Z, according to a new survey (Getty)

So long, plonker. Farewell, prat. Goodbye, git. According to a new survey, a clutch of traditional British insults are on the verge of dying out, as Gen Z don’t use them or even know what they mean. Jibes like pillock, numpty and tosspot are all apparently on a one-way street to obsolescence, with people under the age of 28 opting for disparaging terms like Karen, basic or simp instead. I’d call them ninnies, but if the survey by research agency Prospectus Global is to be believed, then only just under half of them would know what I was banging on about.

Regional insults fared especially badly in the report, with the term lummox (a word that originated in East Anglia, and describes someone who is clumsy and stupid) unfamiliar to 62 per cent of Gen Z respondents. Bampot, a Scottish word for a foolish person that’s thought to be inspired by a pot for storing yeast (“barm” is the frothy foam that appears on a fermenting liquid, and is the root of “barmy”) was similarly baffling: 60 per cent of the young people surveyed had never heard it.

Brits have a long, proud tradition of coming up with uniquely scathing ways to lay into our enemies. Insults can be paradoxically affectionate too, employed jokingly to address the people we like the most. The most memorable ones tend to feel deeply offensive but also a bit ridiculous – and are somehow more wounding than resorting to the blunt instrument of an outright swear word. In the survey, 68 per cent of respondents of all ages claimed that Britain still has the best insults of any country in the world (presumably this was swayed by the fact that they were all UK-based, and probably don’t have a working knowledge of other languages’ capacity for invective). But if some of our classic affronts are falling out of use, and aren’t being replaced by anything equally creative and offensive, then surely we won’t be able to claim this status for much longer.

The great British insult, you might say, is in crisis. Admittedly, it feels like a bit of a stretch to lay the blame entirely at the feet of Gen Z (adding to the long list of stuff that the “youth of today” are allegedly killing off, like side partings and phone calls). Some of the more archaic terms that the survey claims are at risk of extinction have surely been sliding out of use for centuries. “Cad” summons visions of a dodgy love interest from a Jane Austen novel, a character whose idea of a good time is eloping to Gretna Green with an unsuspecting heiress. It would sound bizarre if it were directed at anyone who lives in the 21st century, unless they happened to be filming a new season of Bridgerton. “Berk” is another one that has been on the decline for decades; you can imagine the Famous Five using it to politely berate one another for failing to pack the ginger beer.

Language inevitably changes over time, and so do the words we use to slag each other off. For a case in point, think back to all the footnotes that clogged up the Shakespeare plays you had to read in school, spelling out exactly why calling someone a “painted maypole” or even an “egg” might be very offensive. But it’d be nice to replace outworn insults with something a bit more inspiring and long-lasting than American-inflected internet speak like “Karen” and “basic”, neither of which is likely to see out the decade.

These put-downs will probably disappear, much like all the embarrassing ones that millennials used to use online. For clarification, I’m certainly not advocating for the spectacularly twee compound insults that enjoyed inexplicable popularity on the internet a few years back. Think along the lines of the dreaded “cockwomble”, and any other term made by shoving a vaguely rude word together with a cutesy noun. You know the kind: the sort of self-satisfied dig that is often preceded by the phrase “You, sir,” as if the insulter is about to challenge the insultee to a duel rather than tap their phone screen to write a tweet that the intended recipient probably won’t even read.

If proper insults are barbed wire, these are gingham bunting. Terms like prat and git are funny and powerful because they are bruisingly direct, the opposite of flowery wordplay: they’re quick, punchy, and satisfying, even cathartic, to say or shout.

The most memorable British insults tend to feel hurtful but also a bit ridiculous
The most memorable British insults tend to feel hurtful but also a bit ridiculous (Getty/iStock)

It’d be a shame (not to mention deeply cringe-inducing) if British insult culture took this direction instead and we all ended up speaking like we’d swallowed a series of QI – just as it’d be sad to lose, thanks to internet-induced homogenisation, the things that make British English unique. The only course of action when it comes to saving our idiosyncratic insult culture? Use them or lose them. Call a pillock a pillock – it’s in the national interest.

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