Cullions, Fustilarians, and Pizzles: A Short Dictionary of Shakespearean Insults

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

While Shakespeare’s actual date of birth remains unknown, April 23, the date of his death, is celebrated as his birthday. Bardolators pay homage by learning to talk like him and his characters – what better way to start than with insults?

Here we round up ten of our favorite Shakespearean jabs, what they mean exactly, and where they came from.


Thersites: “Ay, do, do; thou sodden-witted lord! thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows; an assinego may tutor thee.”

Act 2. Scene I, Troiles and Cressida

Assinego, also spelled asinego, is “a little ass” or “foolish fellow.” The word comes from the Spanish asnico, diminutive of asno, “ass.”


Prince Henry: “I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin; this sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horse-back-breaker, this huge hill of flesh,—”

Act 2. Scene IV, Henry IV, Part 1

A bed-presser is someone who’s lazy and loves their bed. Other old-timey synonyms for sluggard include idlesby, loll-poop, curry-favel, and, our favorite, loitersack.

bull’s pizzle

Falstaff: “’Sblood, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish!”

Act 2. Scene IV, Henry IV, Part 1

This quote from Henry IV is jam-packed with insults. A starveling is someone who is starving but probably means a weakling here. An elf-skin is “a man of shrivelled and shrunken form,” says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A neat’s tongue is a tongue of cow or ox, where neat is an obsolete term for a “domestic bovine animal,” and a stock-fish is fish “cured by splitting and drying hard without salt,” perhaps with the idea of something dried up and shriveled.

Finally, a bull’s pizzle is a bull’s penis. The word pizzle comes from a Low German word meaning “tendon,” and is now mostly used in Australia and New Zealand, according to the OED. Penis, in case you were wondering, is Latin in origin.


Queen: “Away, base cullions!”

Act 1. Scene III, Henry VI, Part 2

A cullion is “a contemptible fellow; a rascal.” An earlier meaning is “testicle,” coming from the Latin culleus, “bag.” See also cully and cojones.


Falstaff: “Away, you scullion! you rampallion! You fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe.”

Act 2. Scene I, Henry IV, Part 2

Another quote that’s teeming with taunts! A scullion is “a servant who cleans pots and kettles, and does other menial service in the kitchen or scullery,” a rampallion is a villain or rascal, and a fustilarian is a scoundrel.

Fustilarian comes from fustilugs, “an unattractive, grossly overweight person.” Fustilugs comes from a combination of fusty, musty or lacking freshness, and lug, “anything that moves slowly or with difficulty.”

Catastrophe here refers to “the posteriors,” as the OED puts it. So I’ll tickle your catastrophe means something like “I’ll kick your ass.”


Charles: “Let’s leave this town; for they are hare-brain’d slaves, / And hunger will enforce them to be more eager.”

Act 1. Scene II, Henry VI, Part 1

Harebrained means having “no more brain than a hare.” Shakespeare’s is the earliest recorded use of this word, which is now often associated with the phrase harebrained scheme.

The earliest mention of harebrained scheme we found was from an 1892 New York Times article: “Of course this is nonsensical, but it appears to have a certain excuse in the fact that the Queen did harbor some such harebrained scheme, and actually summoned Devonshire to Osborne House to discuss it.”

Know of an earlier mention of harebrained scheme? Let us know in the comments.


Leontes: “My wife’s a hobby-horse, deserves a name / As rank as any flax-wench that puts to/ Before her troth-plight: say’t and justify’t.”

Act 1. Scene II, Winter’s Tale

In this context a hobby-horse is a loose woman or prostitute, according to Gordon H. Williams’s Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature. The hobby-horse was “one of the principal performers in a morris-dance,” which  says Williams, was “notorious for licentious behaviour under the mask of Maygaming.”


Macbeth: “Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear, / Thou lily-liver’d boy.”

Act 5. Scene III, Macbeth

Lily-livered means cowardly or timid, and this use in Macbeth seems to be the earliest. Shakespeare seemed to also be the first to use lily to mean pale or bloodless. During Elizabethan times, the liver was believed to be the “seat of love and passion,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. As a “healthy liver is typically dark reddish-brown,” a pale liver is presumably unhealthy and weak.


Trinculo: “I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed monster.”

Act 2. Scene II, The Tempest

Being puppy-headed means being stupid, like a puppy. While puppy at first meant “a small dog kept as a lady’s pet or plaything; a lapdog,” says the OED, by Shakespeare’s time it meant “a young dog.”

In the quote Trinculo is referring to Caliban, “a ‘savage and deformed’ slave of Prospero, represented as the offspring of the devil and the witch Sycorax,” and “figuratively, a person of a low, bestial nature.”


Kent: “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave.”

Act 2. Scene II, King Lear

Three-suited means having “only three suits of clothes,” and therefore being “beggarly,” or so petty or paltry “as to deserve contempt.” Broken meat refers to “fragments of meat” left after a meal. Worsted stockings seem to be lower quality stockings.

Not insulting enough? Check out these, these, and finally these as told by, what else, cats. Also be sure to see these Wordnik-made lists, Slings and Arrows, 135 Offensive Shakespearean Terms, and today’s list of the day, Knaves, Rogues, and Stewed Prunes. For some now-common words and phrases that the Bard coined or popularized, revisit last year’s post.

[Photo: CC BY 2.0 by tonynetone]

Shakespeare Soup

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing. By William Blake

Today marks what is observed as William Shakespeare’s birthday. How will you celebrate? Perhaps you’ll talk like Shakespeare, or maybe you’ll conduct some computational analysis on the Bard’s plays. As for us, we’re Word Soup-ing some now-common words and phrases that Shakespeare coined or popularized.

bated breath

Shylock: “Shall I bend low, and in a bondman’s key, / With bated breath and whispering humbleness / Say this: / ‘Fair sir, you spit on me on Wednesday last?’”

Act 1. Scene I, The Merchant of Venice

With bated breath means “eagerly; with great anticipation.” According to World Wide Words, “Shakespeare was the first known writer to use” the phrase, and “bated here is a contraction of abated,” which means “reduced, lessened, lowered in force.” Thus, bated breath “refers to a state in which you almost stop breathing as a result of some strong emotion, such as terror or awe.”

be-all and end-all

Macbeth: “It were done quickly: if the assassination / Could trammel up the consequence, and catch / With his surcease success; that but this blow / Might be the be-all and the end-all here.”

Act 1. Scene VII, Macbeth

Shakespeare was the first to use this phrase meaning “the essential factor; the all-important element; the supreme aim.”

Brave New World

Miranda: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, / That has such people in’t!”

Act 5. Scene I, The Tempest

The use of this phrase is ironic in both The Tempest and Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel: in the play, it’s used to describe the first strangers Miranda has seen, “drunken sailors staggering off the wreckage of their ship,” while in the novel, “Huxley employs the same irony when the ‘savage’ John refers to what he sees as a ‘brave new world.’” The novel also contains numerous quotes from Shakespeare’s plays.


Hostess: “So I told him, my lord; and I said I heard your grace say so: and, my lord, he speaks most vilely of you, like a foul-mouthed man as he is; and said he would cudgel you.”

Act 3. Scene II, Henry IV

Foul-mouthed is defined as “using scurrilous, opprobrious, obscene, or profane language; given to abusive or filthy speech.”


Mercutio: “Thou wilt quarrel with a man for cracking nuts, having no other reason but because thou hast hazel eyes;–what eye but such an eye would spy out such a quarrel?”

Act 3. Scene I, Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare was the first to use hazel in reference to eye color, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the play, hazel refers to a “reddish-brown color. . .in reference to the color of ripe hazel-nuts.” Today hazel eyes may also be yellowish- or greenish-brown.


Worcester: “Look how we can, or sad or merrily, / Interpretation will misquote our looks.”

Act V. Scene II, Henry IV

Misquote, in this context, “to misread; misconstrue; misinterpret,” was first recorded in Shakespeare in the 1590s. Quote is attested to the 14th century and comes from the Middle English coten,”to mark a book with numbers or marginal references,” which comes from the Medieval Latin quotare, “to number chapters.”

Nick Bottom

Nick Bottom is a weaver and a bottom was, at the time Shakespeare was writing, a skein of thread or a structure around which thread was wound.”

Shakespeare’s Bottom,” The Virtual Linguist, November 9, 2011

Weaver-related definitions for bottom include “the cocoon of a silkworm,” and “a color applied to a fabric with a view of giving a peculiar hue to a dye which is to be subsequently applied.” As for the buttocks meaning of bottom, the Virtual Linguist says that “only dates back to the late 18th century, well after Shakespeare.”


Prince of Wales: “I am content that he shall take the odds / Of his great name and estimation, / And will, to save the blood on either side, / Try fortune with him in a single fight.”

Act 5. Scene I, Henry IV

Odds meaning “the amount or proportion by which the bet of one party to a wager exceeds that of the other” and hence, the “probability or degree of probability in favor of that on which odds are laid,” was first found in Shakespeare in 1597. Odds is the plural of odd, which comes from the Old Norse oddi, “point of land, triangle, odd number.”

one fell swoop

Macduff: “What, all my pretty chickens and their dam / At one fell swoop?”

Act 4. Scene III, Macbeth

Shakespeare was the first to use this phrase meaning “in one stroke.” According to World Wide Words, fell here doesn’t refer to falling but to an old meaning of the word, “of a strong and cruel nature; eager and unsparing; grim; fierce; ruthless,” and comes from the Old French fel, “cruel, fierce, vicious.” Related is felon.


Hamlet: “Let it work; / For ’tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petard.”

Act 3. Scene IV, Hamlet

A petard is “an engine of war used to blow in a door or gate,” or “a small paper cartridge used in ornamental fireworks.” World Wide Words says the word only survives in the phrase hoist with one’s own petard, which means getting “injured by the device that you intended to use to injure others.” Petard ultimately comes from the Latin peditum, “to break wind.”


“Mischievous behavior is called puckish ostensibly after Shakespeare’s Puck from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ but the Bard of Avon was following a folkloric tradition in which spirits called pucas caused trouble for travelers.”

“’Puckish’ lifted from Bard’s play,” The Deseret News, July 17, 1990

Puck probably comes from the Middle English pouke, “goblin,” which comes from the Old English puca.

salad days

Cleopatra: “My salad days, / When I was green in judgement, cold in blood, / To say as I said then.”

Act 1. Scene 5, Antony and Cleopatra

Salad days refer to “a time of youth, innocence, and inexperience.” Although it first appears in Antony and Cleopatra in 1606, “it only became popular,” says World Wide Words, “from the middle of the nineteenth century on.” The link between salad and youth is the color green, like that of “young green shoots of spring.” Today salad days also refers to “a period in the past when somebody was at the peak of their abilities or earning power, in their heyday, not necessarily when they were young.”

sea change

Ariel: “Nothing of him that doth fade / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”

Act 1. Scene 2, The Tempest

Sea change has the literal meaning of “a change caused by the sea,” as well as the figurative, “a marked transformation.” World Wide Words cites one of the first figurative uses occuring in 1877. We found one from slightly earlier, in 1861: “A year or two ago they would have foreboded nothing more than a straggling riot; but kings and people have undergone a sea-change in the interval, and such indications can no longer be safely set down at their old value.”


Emilia: “O, fie upon them! Some such squire he was / That turn’d your wit the seamy side without, / And made you to suspect me with the Moor.”

Act 4. Scene II, Othello

Shakespeare popularized the figurative use of seamy, “sordid; base.” This comes from the idea, says the Online Etymology Dictionary, that “the seamy side of a sewn garment [is] the less attractive, and thus typically turned in.”


Puck: “What hempen home-spuns have we swaggering here, / So near the cradle of the fairy queen?”

Act 3. Scene I, A Midsummer’s Night Dream

Swagger, “to strut with a defiant or insolent air, or with an obtrusive affectation of superiority,” was first recorded in this 1590 play, and is a frequentative of swag, meaning “to move as something heavy and pendent; sway.” (A frequentative is “a verb which denotes the frequent occurrence or repetition of an action.”)

What are some of your favorite Shakespeare words and phrases?