Bonnie Tsui is a contributing writer to CityLab. She writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods.
The best old-timey insults from a new collection of long lost phrases.
One of my dearest friends, Lynsay, is a constant stream of old-timey sayings that have been adopted by my household. A favorite: “Now we’re cooking with gas!” (Use to denote success, as in, “Now we’re really moving along!”) Made famous by Bob Hope, it originated from a mid-century advertisement for newfangled gas stoves and was picked up by Lynsay’s language-loving mom, a peripatetic Army brat and constant source of wordy wildness.
The enthusiastic expression is just one of the “forgotten-yet-delightful” literary flourishes in Lesley M. M. Blume’s new book, Let's Bring Back: The Lost Language Edition. The fun of this pocket-sized volume is in its unearthing of a fine selection of the past’s best tongue-ticklers, many of which communicate more than any modern phrasing.
Blume is also the author of the original Let's Bring Back, the whimsical encyclopedia of "Forgotten-Yet-Delightful, Chic, Useful, Curious, and Otherwise Commendable Things from Times Gone By.” Where that design-minded tome documented lost furnishings and architecture, the new language book is dedicated to vernaculars of bygone eras, from praises to insults, for use in polite society (and more intimate relations). It also includes guest contributions from the journalistic and literary likes of Christopher Buckley, Sloane Crosley, and Cokie Roberts.
This term, for example, dates from the mid-19th century. Use it to insult someone for being a serious procrastinator:
The phrase below was used in the 1700s to refer to sex workers. Use sparingly and at your own peril:
This next one originated as a term for those awarded knighthood by the King of England on occasion of a holiday, as opposed to one who was recognized for valor in a battle or tournament; the dubious honor was received “with unhacked rapier and on carpet consideration.”
Remember Dylan Thomas’s melancholy sonnet sequence, “Altarwise by Owl-Light”, from 1935?
This delightful piece of slang shows up in Francis Grose’s 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a “dictionary of buckish slang, university wit, and pickpocket eloquence.” Giddyup, glasses!
And an 1898 source attributes this phrase to a fable about the emperor Hadrian and some soldiers he encountered in the baths who tried to curry favor with him. He handles it with aplomb:
Illustrations by Mark Byrnes