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Tasty Words: bonne bouche, ambrosia, nectar, gustable, sapid, viands, kickshaw

Overeating: guttle, fress, trencherman, edacious (suppurate), hork, gourmandize, raven; ravin (trencher)

New Beasts in OED: puppy-dog eyes, bunny slope, chili dog (chili), hamster wheel, bird-dog, puffin crossing, sick puppy

Rip Van Winkle: weathercock (cockerel), obsequious, curtain lecture (malleable, ductile, pliant), assiduity, gallligaskins, alacrity (clamber), phlegm, Babylonish

Domineering Women: petticoat government, harpy, termagant, virago, branks, cucking stool (trebucket), Xanthippe, harridan


Tasty Words


Enough of "collections"! Last week we looked at "savory collectives": food terms that have become collective nouns. This week we'll look at terms of tasty food.

bonne bouche – a delicious morsel, as a treat (also used figuratively, as in the last two quotes)
[French, "good mouth"]


[He] every day dips one of them in his soup, and makes his dog jump for it, and finally gives it to him as a bonne bouche.
– Edgar Allan Poe, Diddling

Flo Ziegfeld had grown rich in the past twenty-five tears on the annual production of his Ziegfeld Follies revues ... In between these bonne-bouches he created a raft of Broadway hits including Show Boat
– Christopher Wilson, Dancing with the Devil: The Windsors and Jimmy Donahue

I don't in the least mean to say that we were the sort of persons who aspired to mix 'with royalty'. … But the Grand Duke was a pleasant, affable sort of royalty, … and it was pleasant to hear him talk about the races and, very occasionally, as a bonne bouche, about his nephew, the Emperor …
– Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier


Ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the Greek and Roman gods, have come to mean respectively any delicious food and drink. [Sometimes confusing food with drink!]

ambrosia – something very pleasing to taste or smell (also, a dessert of oranges and shredded coconut)
nectar – any delicious wine or other drink (now esp. a kind of sweetened fruit juice)

Each word is rooted in Greek for the concept that the gods are immortal:
ambrosios,, from a- "not" + mbrotos, related to mortos "mortal"
nektar, said to be nek- death (as in necrosis – death of most or all of the cells in an organ)+ -tar overcoming

I’ll illustrate each with the rare adjective-version, which comes in a variety of forms. Some recent quotes first.


Snails. Big, fat, juicy, sweet, succulent, ambrosiac snails!
– Colleen McCullough, The First Man in Rome

The food was well-cooked and would have been good in any case; starved as I was, it was ambrosia
– Diana Gabaldon, Voyager

Of course, the pig's head frightens most people away from its nectar
ean hulk. But the tastiest part of your pig is his head …
– Gourmet Magazine Editors and Ruth Reichl, Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet


And now, older quotes showing some variant forms.


Oh charming mild glance, oh ambrosian lips, oh gay laughter!
– Samuel Taylor Coleridge and H. J. Jackson, The Major Works (Oxford World's Classics) (unclear if this is Coleridge or the editor speaking)

For dinner savory fruits of taste to please / True appetite, and not disrelish thirst / Of nectar
ous draughts between from milky stream, / Berry or grape …
– John Milton, Paradise Lost

She consented that the village-maiden … should brew a certain kind of beer, nectar
eous to the palate, and of rare stomachic virtues …
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables


gustable1. capable of being tasted 2. pleasant to the taste; toothsome. (We’ve previously seen the word "toothsome".)

I do like the first quote on this rarely-used word. Who would have anticipated that cannibalism could have a positive effect on a society’s morals?!


The Islanders prided themselves that they were not cannibalistic, but merely appreciative of the "gifts of the goddess"—bodies of criminals. Moral standards were unusually high, for the monotonous fish-diet made every man the more eager to detect a gustable neighbor's mortal infringement of law.
– Time Magazine, Nov. 19, 1928, reviewing Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island by H. G. Wells

     "Do sit down," … . "Elmira's maid left us some coffee." … She felt a little shy, covering up this feeling with a serious inquiry into his tastes. "Cream? Sugar?"
     "Black!" he expostulated, as if the mere suggestion of some other possibility were a desecration. "Black, of course. That's the only way it's gustable. Don't you prefer black yourself, Mrs. Fuller?"
     "Oh, yes," Dilly admitted. "I always take it black."
      "We have a lot in common," Mr. Smith observed. The discovery seemed to give him pleasure.
– Daisy Newman, The Autumns [sic] Brightness


sapid – (chiefly N. Amer.) 1. flavorsome 2. pleasant or interesting
[Latin sapidus, from sapere to taste]


The juices released by the meat [pot roast] mingle with the broth, to be reduced and then reabsorbed by the meat during the final glazing. This technique concentrates and melds the flavors of broth, meat, herbs and aromatic vegetables into a sapid and flavorful whole.
– James Peterson, Essentials of Cooking


Yummy! Are we hungry now?


Two words today meaning a fancy or choice dish: one complimentary, the other usually contemptuous.

viands1. foods, esp. very choice or delicious dishes (the singular form exists, but is very rare) 2. provisions, food
[At root a complimentary word, for it comes from Latin vivenda ‘things to be lived on’. (Ultimately, from Latin for ‘to live’]

kickshaw – a fancy dish in cookery (chiefly with contemptuous force: a fancified French 'something', not one of those good old English dishes.)
[This word sounds Anglo-Saxon, but is in fact a mangled mispronunciation of French quelque chose, ‘something’.]


In those, the palmy days, … he was taken straight to the executive floor … and he had sat only at conference tables of mahogany with fruitwood bandings, amid walnut-paneled walls and more custom carpeting, and was served only viands by the in-house chef and coffee from New Orleans …
–Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

[The Admiral, presiding at dinner:] “Elliot, tempt the ladies with that ragout. They may be partial to foreign kickshaws – made dishes are not to my taste.”
– C.S. Forester, Ship of the Line


Kickshaw also has another meaning, illustrated by this quote:


… figurines and souvenirs and kickshaws and mementos and gewgaws and bric-a-brac, everything either useless to begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its use; acres of luxuries; acres of excrement.
– Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed





After a week devoted to savory, good-tasting words, are you hungry? Good! Let’s devote a week to words about over-eating.

For instance, you could startle your teenager by saying to him, "Don't guttle your food!"

guttle – to eat greedily and voraciously (noun guttler – one who guttles; a glutton)
[from gut? from guzzle? Many of the word’s appearances are in the phrase guttling and guzzling.]

Recent quotes are available, but the older ones are so much more interesting.


Of the company were two eminent gastronomes – call them Messrs. Guttle and Swig – who so acridly hated each other that nothing but a good dinner could bring them under the same roof.
– Ambrose Bierce, A Sole Survivor

Are you, who are setting up to be a man of the world and a philosopher, to tell me that the aim of life is to guttle three courses and dine off silver? Do you dare to own to yourself that your ambition in life is a good claret, and that you'll dine with any, provided you get a stalled ox to feed on? … I'd rather live upon raw turnips and sleep in a hollow tree, or turn backwoodsman or savage, than degrade myself to this civilisation, and own that a French cook was the thing in life best worth living for.
– William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Pendennis


fress – to eat a great deal (also, to eat quickly noisily). noun form: fresser

Definition taken from Leo Rosten (The New Joys of Yiddish), who reports that one of his correspondents tells of seeing a restaurant in Mexico City whose menu, under “Sandwiches,” read thus:


Pastrami por Fressers …………………………………………………… 10 pesos
Pastrami (Double Decker) por Grandes Fressers …………20 pesos
Pastrami (Triple Decker) por Grandísimo Fressers……… 30 pesos


We put two words together today because the overeating quotes concern U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901-1909) and his vice president and successor, William Howard Taft.  Roosevelt was a powerfully-built man of good appetite, but Taft, who weighed well over 300 pounds, dwarfed him.

One word uses the -cious ending, which Thoreau says is particularly strong.


This termination cious adds force to a word like the lips of browsing creatures which greedily collect what the jaw holds … When these expressive words are used the hearer gets something to chew upon. …. The audacious man not only dares – but he greedily collects more danger to dare. … what is luscious is especially tasted by the lips. … To be edacious & voracious is to be not nibbling & swallowing merely – but eating & swallowing while the lips are greedily collecting more food.
– Thoreau’s journal, Sept. 2, 1851 (some print versions say “voracius”)


trencherman – a hearty eater
edacious – devouring food in great quantities; voracious


Like the President [T. Roosevelt], he [Captain A. W. de G. Butt] was a heroic trencherman, and matched Roosevelt plate by oversized plate, from double helpings of peaches and cream for breakfast, followed by fried liver and bacon and hominy grits with salt and butter ("Why, Mr. President, this is a Southern breakfast"), through three-course lunches and meat dinners suppurating with fat.
– Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex

For Americans of even moderate means eating was no casual activity in the early 1900s. The day's meals … were serious, often interminable progressions through course after substantial course, and the American appetite of [food critic James] Beard's formative years was personified by the spectacularly edacious William Howard Taft, who crowded his mountainous bulk into the White House when Beard was five years old …
– Jay Jacobs, James Beard, an American Icon: the Early Years, in Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet


Bonus word:
– to form or discharge pus


horkslang: to gulp down hurriedly; to "snarf"
[origin: onomatopoeic?]

This term is relatively new. Though I’ve seen it more often defined as "to vomit", the meaning I give seems to be more in the mainstream culture, as indicated by the today’s quote.

I’ll present that quote in a different format, as brief video clip from a current movie. (Those who lack audio can get the quote by painting over the text below. But if you can play the clip, you’ll find it much more entertaining.)


Remy: Hey I brought you something to …[sees Emile eating garbage]
Remy : AH! NO NO NO NO! SPIT THAT OUT RIGHT NOW! [Emile obeys.]
Remy: I have got to teach you about food. Close your eyes. [Emile obeys. Remy hands out piece of cheese.]
Remy: Now take a bite of this … [Emile snarfs cheese.]
Remy: No no no! Don't just hork it down!
Emile: Too late.


gourmandize – to overeat or eat immodestly; make a pig of oneself


The deer and the [wild] pig fed out at night,, wrecking the corn fields and rooting up the goobers. The pigs were particularly death on the pea fields, both peanut and black-eyed field peas, while the deer gourmandized young corn and the tender green rye.
– Robert Ruark, The Old Man's Boy Grows Older


Usage note: The noun form gourmand is an ambiguous term: it can either mean an excessive eater (that is, a glutton), or an eater with discriminating taste (that is, a gourmet). So when you use that word you should take care to indicate which you mean. But the verb form gourmandize is unambiguous: it pertains only to gluttony.


Today's word, an obscure one akin to "rape", has its root in the concept of plunder, pillage, and taking prey. But I'll give only the definitions that pertain to our theme of overeating.

raven; ravinverb: to devour voraciously (as in "preying upon"), or to have such an appetite: Beasts … ravening for blood and slaughter (noun: voracity; gluttony)


[Byron's] interminable poems … extol the super-romantic ideal of the bold , brave, dashing, wildly colorful young man who ravins down … all conceivable experiences like so much ale. It is all quite breathtaking and intoxicating and is likely to make one look at one'- own demure, not to say drab, existence and think, "Life is passing me by."
– Thomas Howard and Vivian W. Dudro, The Night Is Far Spent

Plus a nice older quote (credit to OED):
The great abundance of meate deuoured by Rauen-stomackes and Trencher-friends.
– Crooke, Body of Man (1615)
[Note: The quote, per the style of the times, twice uses a u where we would use a v.]


Bonus word:
– a wooden board or platter, for carving or serving food (We saw this a few days ago, when we presented 'trencherman'.)



New Beasts in OED


The Oxford English Dictionary is continuously being updated. Four times a year the publishers announce the words, phrases and sentences they have added to the one-line version.

We'll look at some of the additions that were announced last week, and perhaps get a sense of the creativity and liveliness of our language. By coincidence, the current list includes a fair number of "animal" phrases," on which we'll focus our attention.

puppy-dog eyes – a person's eyes (or general expression or appearance), likened to a puppy's, in appearing mournful, beseeching, or winsome, or in seeking to elicit sympathy or compassion


But Mommy always looked sad, even when she was smiling. She worried all the time -- about how she was going to pay the rent, the light bill, the grocery bill. … When I'd see her looking so sad and scared, I would climb onto her lap. "Please don't worry, Mommy," I'd say. She would look at me with those sad puppy dog eyes and say, "I'm not worried, Pickle Puss. Someday our ship will come in."
     One time I asked how much longer it would be before the ship came in, and she said, "I guess it sunk."
– Wally
Lamb, Couldn't Keep It to Myself [etc.]


bunny slopeskiing: a gentle slope considered suitable for beginners (also used figuratively on rare occasion)
First OED cite: 1954.


No skiing at all, the doc had told him firmly. Not for at least a week, and then he'd confine himself to the bunny slopes. It wouldn’t look that bad, would it? He’d pretend to be teaching his kids       damn!
–Tom Clancy, Debt of Honor

I serve four young women … They order … the “wings of mass destruction.” … I warn them away from it, pronouncing it too hot to handle. They press on and survive.
     One of them later wonders aloud whether to have the superhot “martini from hell,” made with peppered Absolut. “Why worry?” I say. “With those wings, you climbed Everest. The martini's like a bunny slope.”
– Frank Bruni, A Critic at Every Table, in Best Food Writing 2006 (Holly Hughes, editor)


Today, a health food -- NOT!

chili dog – a hot dog topped with a serving of chili con carne. 1948
[chili – chili con carne; that is, a Mexican stew of minced beef flavored with chili peppers]

Though these terms go back to at least 1948 and 1886(!) respectively, OED is just now getting around to including them. (OED also spells it chilli with a double-l, but the single-l spelling I give is far more common.)


I convinced my better half to split a chili dog with me …. It doesn't get much better than this. The hot dog itself was smothered in chili and cheese. Many vendors make the mistake of thinking a chili dog is health food …
– Pittsburg (KS) Morning Sun, Sept. 10, 2007

In this day of health-consciousness, the chili dog has repeatedly been kicked in the buns. Full of fat, cry the nutritionists. Minimal food value. Laced with sodium nitrite. Loaded with salt. No redeeming social value. But nutritionists don't care about tradition … And, to most of us, the chili dog is a Southern tradition …
– Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Oct. 25, 1986


hamster wheel – a small treadwheel on which a hamster can run endlessly to get exercise; also fig., connoting pointless activity


When your life turned into one big disappointment, a frantic hamster wheel blur of work and baby with no one to love you or tell you that you were doing it well, bourbon and Tab did start to take on a certain allure.
– Jennifer Weiner, Little Earthquakes

We get too busy to take time for ourselves--we become caught up in life. We go through the motions of existence, spinning wildly on the hamster wheel of obligations and daily tasks, forgetting what we started out hoping for, burying ourselves in routine and work.
– Roger Gould, Shrink Yourself: Break Free from Emotional Eating Forever


bird-dog (verb)
1. to pursue with dogged determination; to pester relentlessly
2. to scout or search for (noun, N. Amer. colloq. – a scout, esp. (Sport) a talent scout)


sense 1:
You're just a young guy! You oughta be out running around in a convertible, bird-dogging girls.
– Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

sense 2:
… young associates brought in to bird-dogging deals and pursue their own entrepreneurial ideas.
– David A. Kaplan, Mine's Bigger: Tom Perkins and the Making of the Greatest Sailing Machine Ever Built

[baseball:] Tramping highways and byways, wandering everywhere bird dogging the sandlots for months without spotting so much as a fifth-rater he could telegraph about to the head scout …
– Bernard Malamud, The Natural


puffin crossing – a pedestrian crossing with traffic lights partly controlled by sensors which detect the presence of pedestrians
[Pedestrian User Friendly INtelligent crossing]

This is a British term. Research reveals that you Brits apparently also have zebra crossings, pelican crossings, and toucan crossings. I'm afraid to ask.


The proposed traffic calming is expected to benefit school children in the area as the existing pelican crossing will be changed to a puffin crossing … . [The] proposal said, "Puffin crossings aim to improve safety and reduce delays as detectors watch the crossing and control the light signals. The advantages being the lights will stay red until the pedestrians have safely crossed the road and drivers will no longer be stopped if there are no pedestrians waiting to cross."
– Bexhill Observer, Sept. 4, 2007


sick puppyorig. and chiefly U.S. 1. colloq.: a very ill person 2. slang: an abnormal, deviant, or deranged person


     Then Phil asked, "In your other life, Nate, did you ever have a problem with adultery?"
     "None whatsoever, It wasn't a problem, it was a way of life. Every semiattractive woman was nothing but a potential quickie. I was married, but I never thought that I was committing adultery. It wasn't sin; it was a game. I was a sick puppy, Phil."
– John Grisham, The Testament



Rip Van Winkle


I’ve been reading Washington Irving (1783-1859), “the first American writer to excite a worldwide interest through his stories” [blurb], and I particularly enjoyed his Rip Van Winkle. Our theme will tell retell the story. The tale takes place in the last half of the 18th century, and its setting is


… a little village of great antiquity, having been founded by some of the Dutch colonists, in the early times of the province, … and there were some of the houses of the original settlers standing within a few years, built of small yellow bricks brought from Holland, having latticed windows and gable fronts, surmounted with weather-cocks.


weathercock – a weathervane shaped like a rooster (technically, shaped like a cockerel – a young domestic cock) Also used to mean something very changeable or fickle.


In Europe the situation was even darker for Ferdinand. The weathercock French government had withdrawn its earlier offer of support.
– C. V. Wedgwood, The Thirty Years War

We have our setting. What sort of person was Rip, our main character?


… he was a simple good-natured man; he was, moreover, a kind neighbor, and an obedient hen-pecked husband. Indeed, to the latter circumstance might be owing that meekness of spirit which gained him such universal popularity; for those men are most apt to be obsequious and conciliating abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home.


obsequious – servilely obedient or attentive; fawning [One source say to think of ‘kiss-ass’.]
[Latin ob "after" + sequi "follow" (as in sequel)]


curtain lecture – a wife’s private reprimand to her husband
[from originally being given behind the bed-curtains}

The author, having noted that "men are most apt to be obsequious and conciliating abroad, who are under the discipline of shrews at home," continues the thought with nice irony.


Their tempers, doubtless, are rendered pliant and malleable in the fiery furnace of domestic tribulation; and a curtain lecture is worth all the sermons in the world for teaching the virtues of patience and long-suffering. [Such a] wife may, therefore, in some respects, be considered a tolerable blessing; and if so, Rip Van Winkle was thrice blessed.


Bonus words:
– easily controlled or influenced; tractable (also, able to adjust to changing circumstances; adaptable)
[Latin malleus "hammer" (as in mallet). In science, a malleable metal is one that can be hammered or pounded into thin sheets. Contrast: a ductile metal can be stretched out into thin wire.]
pliant – (noun: pliancy) easily influenced or swayed; pliable
[As a technical word concerning materials: flexible; supple; able to be bent or folded easily and without breaking]


Rip, besides being hen-pecked, was characterized by …


an insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor. It could not be from the want of assiduity or perseverance; for he would sit on a wet rock, with a rod as long and heavy as a Tartar’s lance, and fish all day without a murmur, even though he should not be encouraged by a single nibble. … He would never refuse to assist a neighbor even in the roughest toil, and was a foremost man at all country frolics for husking Indian corn, or building stone-fences; the women of the village, too, used to employ him to run their errands, and to do such little odd jobs as their less obliging husbands would not do for them. In a word Rip was ready to attend to anybody’s business but his own; but as to doing family duty, and keeping his farm in order, he found it impossible.


assiduity – constant or close attention to what one is doing (note: the adjective form, assiduous, is much more common)

"Lazy" and "henpecked" is an unhappy combination, as the author notes. I especially like his last sentence.


Rip Van Winkle, however, was one of those happy mortals, of foolish, well-oiled dispositions, who take the world easy, eat white bread or brown, whichever can be got with least thought or trouble, and would rather starve on a penny than work for a pound. If left to himself, he would have whistled life away in perfect contentment; but his wife kept continually dinning in his ears about his idleness, his carelessness, and the ruin he was bringing on his family. … he was fain to draw off his forces, and take to the outside of the house—the only side which, in truth, belongs to a hen-pecked husband.


Rip's son was exactly the same sort of good-for-nothing:


His son Rip, an urchin begotten in his own likeness, promised to inherit the habits, with the old clothes of his father. He was generally seen trooping like a colt at his mother’s heels, equipped in a pair of his father’s cast-off galligaskins, which he had much ado to hold up with one hand, as a fine lady does her train in bad weather.


gallligaskins – loose trousers
(also, a kind of loosely-fitting hose or breeches worn in the 16th and 17th centuries)

And indeed Rip's son was, in adulthood, very like his father. The author, so noting, makes an interesting noun-use of the familiar word "ditto".


As to Rip’s son and heir, who was the ditto of himself, … he … evinced an hereditary disposition to attend to anything else but his business.


Ah, an unhappy marriage. "Times grew worse and worse with Rip Van Winkle as years of matrimony rolled on; a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use."

But then Rip, wandering through the woods one fine day, comes upon a stranger and eagerly assists him. Why so eager? Perhaps because beer is involved!


He bore on his shoulder a stout keg, that seemed full of liquor, and made signs for Rip to approach and assist him with the load. Though rather shy and distrustful of this new acquaintance, Rip complied with his usual alacrity; and mutually relieving one another, they clambered up a narrow gully …


alacrity – brisk eagerness or enthusiasm

Bonus word: clamber – to climb awkwardly and laboriously


Rip becomes drunk and falls asleep. Upon waking he returns to his village, but finds it very different and very confusing.


The very character of the people seemed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquillity. … [A] fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of congress—liberty—Bunker’s Hill—heroes of seventy-six—and other words, which were a perfect Babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.


Indeed, things have changed, for Rip has been asleep for twenty years!

phlegm1. sluggishness of temperament 2. calm self-possession; equanimity (more common is the medical sense: thick, sticky, stringy respiratory mucus, as during a cold)

Babylonish – Babel-like, confused in language (among other meanings)

Here's a nice 1816 quote relevant to our word interests, taken from OED: "This is the kind of Babylonish lexicography of Johnson's Dictionary, which gives twenty-four meanings, or shadows of meaning, to the word from."



Domineering Women


I omitted several terms, from Rip Van Winkle, that were saved for this week's theme, "Domineering Women".

We'll use the first to end Rip's tale. In the two decades he slept, the country has had a revolutionary war, and (perhaps more importantly) his hen-pecking wife has died.


It was some time before he … could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war—that the country had thrown off the yoke of old England—and that, instead of being a subject of his Majesty, George III., he was now a free citizen of the United States. Rip, in fact, was no politician; the changes of states and empires made but little impression on him; but there was one species of despotism under which he had long groaned, and that was—petticoat government; happily, that was at an end; he had got his neck out of the yoke of matrimony, and could go in and out whenever he pleased, without dreading the tyranny of Dame Van Winkle.


So Rip's tale teaches the benefits of getting drunk; and as the author notes in conclusion, "it is a common wish of all henpecked husbands in the neighborhood, when life hangs heavy on their hands, that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon."

petticoat government – rule by, or undue predominance or influence of women in domestic, political, or public life

Freud wrote that America's attempt to ban alcoholic beverages was "obviously under the influence of petticoat government." (The Future of an Illusion, in The Freud Reader) But another author gives a different perspective on female rule:


A little more petticoat government and perhaps countries would not so easily become involved in wars that bring bereavement and tragedy to so many families.
– Jean Plaidy, Victoria Victorious: The Story of Queen Victoria


harpy1. a grasping, unscrupulous woman 2. a shrewish woman
[from monsters in Greek myth, half woman and half bird of prey


In an instant, Pat could transform from a docile, dependent, childlike woman into a demanding, screaming harpy. On one occasion she suggested that she and Jake have a quiet lunch together. But when Jake told her he had to go to the office, she suddenly began screaming at him, inches from his face … . She viciously attacked his manhood, his failures as a husband and father, and his profession.
– Jerold J. Kreisman and Hal Straus, I Hate You, Don't Leave Me: Understanding the Borderline Personality


Is today's word entirely negative? See quote.

termagant – an or overbearing, quarrelsome or nagging woman
[an eponym: from the made-up name of a Muslim deity in medieval morality plays. Some say that that name derives from Italian Trivagante ‘thrice-wandering’.]

Fire can destroy – or it can forge steel. A special joy in Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind is to see how the fires of war change Scarlett. Her sisters cannot grow; they remain flighty frivolous southern belles, and are destroyed. But Scarlett, under adversity, becomes a strong, determined woman.

Here is a key scene:


     "I won't work in the fields like a darky! You can't make me. …. Oh, if Mother knew about this–"
     "You just mention Mother's name once more, Suellen O'Hara, and I'll slap you flat," cried Scarlett. "Mother worked harder than any darky on this place and you known it, Miss Fine Airs!"
     "She did not! … And you can't make me. I'll tell Papa on you and he won't make me work!
     "Don't you dare go bothering Pa with any of our troubles!" cried Scarlett … .
     Carreen … had been silent, a little dazed since she came back to consciousness and found Ellen gone, Scarlett a termagant, the world changed and unceasing labor the order of the day. It was not in Carreen's delicate nature to adjust herself to change. She simply could not comprehend what had happened and she went about Tara like a sleepwalker, doing exactly what she was told.
– Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind


virago – a domineering, violent, or bad-tempered woman.
[Latin, 'heroic- or warrior-woman,' from vir 'man'. Used as the name given by Adam to Eve in the Vulgate (Latin) version of the Bible]


Shakespeare's Joan [of Arc, in Henry VI] is … bawdy and unpleasant in certain scenes, courageous and direct in others … Why should she not be both a diabolic whore and a political-military leader of peasant genius? Strident and shrewish, she gets results … As a roaring girl, she has her own rancid charm … Joan is a virago, a warrior far more cunning than the bully boy Talbot ...
– Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human


Perhaps these term reflect a pervasive contempt for women in older England. One is struck by the casual barbarity women suffered at the hands of their husbands and their male neighbors. Consider the branks (developed in the late 1500s) and the cucking stool (about three centuries older).


"Someone fetch me a branks to muzzle this scold!" The men laughed drunkenly, and the fear rose in me. I saw my mother's face framed in the iron bars, the desperate look in her wild eyes, the inhuman sounds that came from her throat as the iron bit pressed hard against her tongue. He had clapped the branks on her after she cursed him in public for his constant drunkenness. She had worn the helmet a night and a day as my father led her around, taunting her, yanking hard on the chain so that the iron sliced her tongue.
– Geraldine Brooks, Year of Wonders


branks (sometimes brank) – a metal cage for the head, often with a metal bit attached to restrain the tongue, formerly used to punish scolds (also called scold's bridle)

cucking stool – a tool for punishing scolds and others. It was chair (often with a hole like a toilet seat, suitable for that use). The victim was tied and either set out for public ridicule or ducked in a river or pond.
[cuck "to defecate" (may also include urinate), from Old Norse kuka "feces".]
[Also known as a trebucket, but that term has further meanings.]


Do you think there may be a fine new cucking-stool at the Fair, to be purchased; one large enough for her, I mean? I know there is a pond of capacity for her.
– Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair

The village is a huddle of small houses, quite small, in fact, with no more than two rooms, a door, two windows, a chimney seldom. … At the nearest pond, but not in sight, is the cucking stool for women offenders, the wantons, the walking morts, the scolds.
– Thomas B. Costain, The Conquering Family
(mort – old term for a promiscuous female or a prostitute)


Today’s word, a rare one, is an eponym. It is the name of Socrates’ wife, who is traditionally described as shrewish and scolding. One story is that she became so angry with her husband that she threw a bucket of washing water on him. Socrates commented philosophically, "After thunder comes rain."

Xanthippe or Xantippe – an ill-tempered woman


By the time [Charlie Chaplin’s young wife] Lita filed for divorce on January 10, 1927, the diabolic mother-daughter "money plot" had long since dawned on Chaplin. By then it was too late. The dynamic duo relinquished their grip for a price: a cool million. During those two years of married hell, little Lolita metamorphosed into ferocious Xanthippe, stage managed by Nana. Chaplin's every move in the house, every exit and entrance that smacked of peccadillo, every free-thinking remark or intimate suggestion shared with his wife in bed were reported by daughter and noted down by mother in a big business ledger. Nana then turned over the evidence to uncle Ed, the lawyer in the family.
– Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon: The Legendary Underground Classic of Hollywood's Darkest and Best Kept Secrets


harridan – a bossy or belligerent woman (typically an old one)


… the harridan of a Stepmother who demands that Cinderella "prune the rhododendrons, dye the drapes, clean the oven and retile the bathroom" by the time she and her daughters get back from the ball.
– Washington Post, Dec. 10, 1996

Academic departments tend to be … run by people who grew up when smart women became teachers or nurses. … there is something just wrong about a woman sitting in a faculty discussion. A woman who disagrees with the established ideas is a troublemaker. A sloppy, foulmouthed contrarian man can be a brilliant maverick; a sloppy, foulmouthed contrarian woman is just a harridan. Those idealized brilliant loners, those colorful professors with the messy offices and the drinking problems and the much-quoted epigrams: They're all guys.
San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 12, 2001


It's unsettling that English has so many objectifying terms for "a woman". If you doubt that it does, see here.