Rotters, bounders and cads

Image caption A rotter, a bounder, or a cad?

Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker used the word "rotter" to describe the thief who stole his mother's car. It's a rather old-fashioned insult, says Ben Milne.

Lineker may have been exercising restraint when he tweeted, but rotter is not an insult which is thrown with much energy these days. However, slang historian Tony Thorne is pleased at its return.

"Rotter is a beautiful word because - to me - it sums up a particular type of person who's a middle-aged untrustworthy cad. I think of the actor Terry-Thomas, someone with a pencil moustache and brilliantine hair who will pick your pocket while smiling."

Rotter comes from the same vintage as insults such as cad, bounder, oik and counter-jumper. The shadow of the English public school - and the English class system - falls across many of these, although Lineker is unlikely to have been using rotter in this context.

Ian Brookes, consultant editor at Collins Language, says a bounder is defined as a person of lower class who is trying to present themselves as someone above their station. A cad, according to one definition, may have been an academy student, or townsman originally - Etonian slang for someone who doesn't quite cut it as a gentleman.

It's a British phenomenon - look across the Atlantic, and insults have tended generally to be sexual in origin. Punk for instance originally meant a male prostitute. But if you really want to hurt someone in Britain, you bring up their social status. Cad or bounder became more generalised terms of dislike but words such as oik and pleb remain social put-downs. The controversy over whether the word was used by Andrew Mitchell proves that it hasn't entirely lost its sting.

What other words could still make it back? Thorne has a little list: "I still call people nincompoops, mainly to amuse my kids - lickspittle, twerp or milksop." He also suggests whippersnapper, blighter, clot, (right) charlie, 'erbert, (silly) ass and rapscallion.

And if all else fails, one can always revert to the Shakespearean insult: - take this one, from Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1: "This leathern jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue, Spanish pouch". It gets the point across, but if you're thinking of using it on Twitter, bear in mind that it only leaves you with 21 characters.

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