Scroyles and Coystrills

     Back in the day, the worst mistake a newspaper copy editor could make was a typo in an obituary — just as bad in 9-point pica as in a 72-point headline.
     Families cut obituaries out of the newspaper and pasted them into the family Bible. They’d buy 10 extra copies and cut out the obit and send it to everyone in the family.
     God help the newspaper and God help the copy editor if there was a typo in that obituary.
     That was a good tradition — dare I say it? — a noble one.
     Journalism is a trade, a public service, and a craftsman takes pride in his craft. A typo should be as embarrassing to an editor as a nail protruding from a chair seat should be to a furniture maker.
     This is one reason why blogging, and most Internet journalism, is not really journalism.
     But I digress.
     Copy editing was the worst news job I ever had — and the only boring one. I was sentenced to it for two years.
     I hated that job: Cutting an AP story from New Delhi from 11 inches to 5. Cutting the AP “News Roundup” from 43 inches to 29 and slapping a two-deck headline on each item in 12-point bold Bodoni.
     But when I die and St. Peter sends me to Hell, I shall tell him first, and proudly, that I, by God, took obituaries seriously.
     I arranged them so they could be cut out in one piece. I did not jump an obituary to another column, so the family would have to tape the pieces together.
     My late, lamented newspaper, the North County Times, taught me this.
     My bosses knew, and cared, that the family would cut out the obit and paste it into their Bible. Some words are worth saving.
     Now here — after a 315-word introduction — is my point.
     What happens when a word dies?
     No one notices its passing. It’s been dead for years.
     But a good word deserves an obituary — any word that has done the service of a yeoman (ca. 1300-2000).
     If I should call you a coystrill, a meacock, a scroyle, a hilding, a cullion or a mome, would you know I was insulting you?
     Probably not.
     If I tried to seduce a young woman — all right, a middle-aged woman — any woman at all — leave me alone — by calling her a fool or a pigsnye, a pinkeney or a chuck, would she know I was making love to her?
     Surely not.
     Especially fool or pigsnye, let alone Chuck.
     I wouldn’t try it. She might think I’m a meacock, and hit me in the scroyle.
     Shakespeare used all of those words, and his fans knew what he meant. But the words have died. What a shame. They were good words, even if most of them were insults. We need more artful insults today.
     Public discourse in the United States this year has been based upon insults. And what pathetic insults they are: a bilious, nauseating, self-righteous, whiny gruel of stale hatred. No intelligence in it at all. If I couldn’t insult someone any better than that, I’d give it up.
     Here’s an insult for you: “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition. … You whoreson cullionly barber-monger … whoreson zed! … Unnecessary letter!”
     That’s the best insult of all time. That’s what I call good clean fun.

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