How to Talk Trash Like Scout Finch: 7 Insults from To Kill a Mockingbird

Posted by Shmoop on 8/30/10 2:45 PM

2010 marks the 50th anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most important novels in all of American literature.

Given that the author...

  • has only ever published one book;
  • has given almost no public appearances or interviews since its publication; and
  • is reportedly on the verge of finally speaking about the dang thing,

it’s safe to assume that you've heard quite a bit about the novel in the media in the past few months.

For the sake of novelty, we’ll spare you the larger moral message and go straight for some of its less enlightened moments: the insults.

After all, despite being a Southern Gothic novel about bigotry, domestic violence, and a creepy shut-in, the story has a surprisingly playful feel. Here to honor that playfulness are seven of the novel’s more memorable burns.

1.  absolute trash ab-suh-LOOT TRASH, noun phrase

definition: a completely worthless or disreputable person, not to be confused with regular trash; also: such persons as a group

 example: “Atticus said they were absolute trash—I never heard Atticus talk about folks the way he talked about the Ewells.”

context: This explanation is given to Scout when she asks why the Ewell children never attend class beyond the first day of school.

Although the insult is fairly innocuous by modern standards, coming from Atticus, it may as well be a string of four-letter words.

see also: total rabble, utter riffraff

2. big wet hen big weht hen, noun phrase

definition: a person exhibiting disgraceful fear

example: “Cecil Jacobs is a big wet he-en!”

context: This is the insult Scout uses on Cecil Jacobs when she thinks he’s sneaking around behind her.

Scout’s metaphor is a little on the weird side, but we can learn a lot from her enthusiastic delivery: if you don’t have anything truly mean to say, compensate by saying it in sing-song. 

see also: large moist chicken, soggy scaredy-cat

3.  buy cotton bahy KOT-n, verb

definition: pass time in idleness

example: “Jem said he ‘bought cotton,’ a polite term for doing nothing.”

context: Probably the strangest of the seven expressions, Jem uses this one twice to describe older members of the Radley family.

We’re guessing that because the novel is set in the American South, people can either make figurative cotton (i.e. be productive members of society) or buy it.

see also: fart around, twiddle one’s thumbs

4.  morphodite MOHR-foh-dite, noun 

definition: a plant or animal with both male and female sex organs; a variation of the word “hermaphrodite”

example: “You damn morphodite, I’ll kill you!”

context: After overhearing Miss Maudie refer to Scout's unusual-looking snowperson as a “morphodite,”

Scout mistakenly infers that the term involves misshapenness or ugliness. She then uses it to hilarious effect on her older brother.

see also: hermaphrodite, herm-Aphrodite

5.  Victorian privy vik-TAWR-ee-uhn PRIV-ee, noun phrase

definition: an unnecessarily decorative edifice 

example: “The jail was Maycomb’s only conversation piece: its detractors said it looked like a Victorian privy; its supporters said it gave the town a good solid respectable look.”

context: With its red brick façade, battlements, and flying buttresses, the Maycomb jail looks a tad ridiculous sitting between a hardware store and the office of the local newspaper.

On that note, we can’t help but wonder about a town that adorns a jailhouse but not, say, city hall. 

see also: Jacobethan outhouse, baroque commode

6.  whore-lady hohr LEY-dee, compound noun

definition: a woman who engages in sexually promiscuous activities, usually for money

example: “ ‘Grandma,’ he bawled, ‘she called me a whore-lady and jumped on me!’ ” 

context: Apparently misinformed about the meaning of yet another insult, Scout chooses to use this one – not to mention her fists – on her male cousin after he bad-mouths Atticus.

To Scout’s credit, the only thing more disastrous to the male ego than getting beaten up by a younger female cousin is being called a “lady” right beforehand.

see also: floozy-female, harlot-woman

7.  yap yap, noun 

definition: an unsophisticated or uneducated person, usually from a rural area

example: “ ‘She means they’re yappy, Scout.’ ‘What’s a yap?’ ‘Aw, tacky. They like fiddlin’

and things like that.’ ” 

context: Jem uses this expression in an effort to explain why he and Scout shouldn’t spend time with the Cunningham family. Fiddle enthusiasts be warned. 

see also: bumpkin, yokel, antagonist from Deliverance

Topics: Literature, Updates

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