While I’m writing up two other projects (eep!) and house-training a 10-week-old puppy, I amuse myself in the breaks by reading up on the language of insult in early modern England. There’s a thriving literature on the subject: see this bibliography at Early Modern Web.
Of course, reading the literature’s only part of the fun. It’s the primary sources that draw me in as a historian. I often turn to the Old Bailey Online to see insults in the wild. Most recently, I searched “jade” and “bawd” in the Proceedings, insulting terms used to denigrate women.
The earliest appearance of “jade” dates to 1724 in the case of Penelope Adair, aka Bertless, aka Countess Spinello (what a string of pseudonyms), who was charged with grand larceny:
That he for some Reasons (which he did not think fit to mention in Court) took her another Lodging at Hoxton; she had a third Lodging in Wardrobe-Court in Carter-Lane, and a fourth at Mr. Falkenham’s in Thames-Street. So that in a little time she had cost him near a hundred Pounds. Yet, after all this, she ungratefully, and like a wicked jade as she was, had endeavoured to ruin him.1
The jade might be “vile” or “impudent” – it conjures a woman who is grasping, pushy and destructive. Here it’s used as a descriptor, after the fact, to let the judge know just what Aaron Pritchard thinks of this woman.
To be termed a “jade” is bad enough but far worse of an insult is “bawd”. That’s a particularly sexual term. An “old bawd” was understood to describe a down-on-her-luck and aged prostitute or procuress. To call a woman a “bawd” was a grievous insult as seen here in a murder prosecution from 1722:
It appeared that as the prisoner and the Deceased were scolding, the Deceased said, My Mother never was a Bawd to me: Whose Mother was? says the prisoner. I tell you mine wasn’t says the Deceased. Why Impudence, says the prisoner, I’ll throw the Tea in your Face if ye call my Mother Bawd; and with that threw Tea, Cup, and all at the Deceased, which missing her, struck Mary Fennel , the prisoner’s Maid.2
We’re all told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me’. That said, the evidence from the Old Bailey shows that, quite to the contrary, some insults could be deadly!
1. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 04 June 2013), December 1724, trial of Penelope Adair , alias Bertless, alias Countess Spinello, alias Sylvia Anna Landina (t17241204-25).
2. Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 04 June 2013), September 1722, trial of Susan Higner (t17220907-64).