Tag Archives: folk insult


Main piece:


Transliteration in Italian: omarello, omino, ometto

Transliteration in English: little man

Translation: old man who is retired 

M.P.: This is a typical Bolognese expression, which indicates those old men who are like retired and spend their time looking at construction sites. In the common imaginary they are portrayed in their typical pose, with crossed hands behind their backs.

[gets up laughing and mimics the physical pose]

And yes, this word actually entered the slang of the city because it is sometimes used also as a…a sort of joking insult. Like if someone…I don’t know…If someone acts like an old man, or stops in front of building sites, or repeatedly walks with his hand crossed behind his back, friends will make fun of him saying things like “Do not act like an ummarell”. 


My informant is a 23 years old girl who was born in Bologna, Italy, and who is now getting her master degree in archaeology and Egyptology at the city’s university, and who got her bachelor degree in anthropology and oriental studies 2 years ago always at Bologna’s Alma Mater Studiorum. She does’t recall the exact place and time in which she learnt this word, and neither she remember the first source from which she heard this term, she just knows it is a fundamental part of her “folk-culture”, as she herself defined it.


I myself use a lot this word and my informant mentioned this piece while we were chatting at a restaurant in the city center of Bologna.


Something I have always found quite intriguing is the great amount of dialects present in the Italian peninsula. Every region has its own peculiar and proper dialectal speech, and while in some places, especially small towns, they are still spoken -particularly by the older generations-, in bigger cities, dialects have been transformed into slang and adapted to the official language, that is, Italian. In fact, every main city of every Italian region -there are 20 regions in Italy- has words that are typical to that city -or the surrounding area- only. In the majority of cases, these words are not used or even understood by people who do not belong to that community. 

Furthermore, these words tend to evolve from generation to generation, so it happens that only peer groups understand what is being said or meant through that term. 

In these ways, they can be said to perfectly reflect folklore’s definition of “multiplicity and variation”.

Ummarell, precisely, is one of these folk-terms as, deriving from the Emilian dialect, it’s used by people inside the colloquial lingo to represent not only the old retired men who stop at every building site they encounter -as the original meaning implies-, but also all those people who act in this way. 

It becomes an informal way of making fun of a person who act as an old man, or that has the same behavior of old retired man. In this way, a sort of generational division is created, as the youth makes fun of peers pejoratively associating it with the elderly. 

Additionally, it is also used to indicate those who are nosy and who, not having much to do in their spare-time, do useless stuff like watching construction sites and giving unrequested advices to the ones who are working.

Referee Insults

Main piece:

“Get your dirty laundry off the field!”

Context: “In (American) football, the way for the referee to stop a play is to throw a flag in the air and then everyone will stop and they’ll announce what happened. (A penalty?) Yeah, a penalty. And then usually anytime you see that yellow, heinous thing fly in the air—cuz it’s probably gonna go against your team—you yell “get your dirty laundry off the field.”

Background Info: The informant is a close friend of mine in his early 20s. He’s lived in Long Beach, California his entire life and is an avid football fan. We played baritone in marching band together in high school, and I recall him insulting referees during football games. He does not know where he learned the insults from, but his family members and other people in the stands at games yelled similar things.

Thoughts: A lot of the animosity towards referees stems from their near-absolute power and authority over the game of football. Despite the fact that their job is to maintain the fairness and rules of the game they ref for, they’re often universally hated by fans on both sides due to the perception that they’re biased towards the other team, are corrupt, or make false and accidental calls. Under this lens, insults are a way to push back against authority, and the people who insult referees perceive themselves to be righteous and justified. I participated in referee insults a few times myself, and while I do think some people take the insults too far and referees are often abused by fans, most of these stock insults are not heard over the cacophony of noise at a football game. Instead, referee insults become a fun way to bond with other people in the crowd, much like chanting along to a cheer or singing along to a song played by the band.


  • Context: The informant (T) is a 56 yr. old woman originally from Philadelphia, PA. She owns a shore house in South Jersey where she and her extended family spend the summer. She explains to me the term Shoobie and the negative connotation it holds among the inhabitants of Philadelphia and South Jersey. The conversation took place when I asked the informant of a previous encounter she had had in which she used the insult “shoobie” against someone. 
  • Text:

T: “A Shoobie is somebody that would come down from the… Philly… Philadelphia.. to the… the shore… and they would bring their… all their stuff; their lunch, their suntan lotion in a shoe box. And that’s what… they would walk onto the beach with their shoe box for the day and that’s how they got their nickname Shoobie.”

Me: “So whose a Shoobie now? Who says that? Like who do you call a Shoobie?”

T: “A Shoobie now is basically somebody who… still comes down for the day…”

Me: “Comes down where?”

T: “Comes down to the shore for the day… comes down to the beach… or Shoobies are also people who just rent a house for a week.”

Me: “And what’s the shore?”

T: “The shore is the beach… in New Jersey?”

Me: “Like anywhere in New Jersey?

T: “I don’t know if Shoobie goes past, like, Atlantic City, like north of Atlantic City… I don’t know… because I don’t live there.”

Me: “Is it like a good thing to be called a Shoobie?”

T: “Uh-uh. No. You don’t wanna be called a Shoobie.”

Me: “Have you ever called someone a Shoobie?”

T: “Yes.”

Me: “Who’d you call a Shoobie?”

T: “This girl that was on the beach one day who was using really foul language around my parents.”

Me: “Have you ever been called a Shoobie?”

T: “No, I actually haven’t.”

Me: “Are you a Shoobie?”

T: “No. I’m the least amount of a Shoobie!”

  • Analysis: Growing up going to the Jersey Shore, I had always known the term shoobie, and I had always known I never wanted to be one. To be called a shoobie is to say you don’t really belong on the island – you’re not a local. In my town, there is even a restaurant called “Shoobies” in reference to the colloquial term. I think the reason such a term was created was in order to create an in-group and an out-group. It separates those who own houses at the shore and those who rent a house at the shore or just drive down to the beach for the day. It is looked down upon to have outsiders on the beaches, because most of the beach towns are small and everyone in the town knows each other. Different shore towns also have different reputations. For example, you are more likely to find a shoobie in Wildwood or Atlantic City than you are in Stone Harbor or Avalon, so the term is more commonly used as an insult in the towns with less shoobies. As the informant explained, the history of the word comes from day travelers coming to the beach for the day with their lunch in a shoe box, which interrupts the local life. To be considered a shoobie is to be considered lower class, and ultimately unwelcome.

For more about Shoobies, visit…

Ravo, Nick. “FOR EARLY TOURISTS, A TEPID WELCOME AT JERSEY RESORT.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Feb. 1987, www.nytimes.com/1987/02/16/nyregion/talk-long-beach-island-for-early-tourists-tepid-welcome-jersey-resort.html.

Shoe Polish: A Folk Insult?

You don’t know shit from Shinola.

According to the Informant, he heard this phrase growing up from his father. It was typically said by Person A in situations in which Person B doesn’t know what’s going on or for general naivety. It’s not exactly a proverb, because it ridicules those without wisdom instead of imparting wisdom. It can be said to be a folk insult. He said he heard this insult so many times, but it took until about the millionth time for him to realize that yes, it was true. He hadn’t the slightest clue what Shinola was.

This folk insult reportedly originated as commander-to-soldier vulgarity during WWII. The original form of the phrase involved a second verse. In the 1940’s, when is started popping up in military barracks, the full-length piece stated: “You don’t know shit from Shinola, and that’s why your shoes don’t shine.” This oicotype clearly allows anyone, using context clues, to decipher that Shinola is brown shoe polish. It’s interesting that the actual product named Shinola is long-gone, but it lives on in an insult.

It turns out that many insults without authors come from the military. “He doesn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground,” is another example of the same category that can be traced back to the military. Once we know the meaning behind the parts, it’s easy to see the meaning of the whole. Shinola would obviously be the choice pick over shit to shine shoes. Only a truly naïve person would use the two interchangeably.

This phrase always gets a smile out of me, regardless of context. This can possibly be regarded as the Informant’s catch phrase. In a way, it’s a passed-down insult, from my father’s father, that the majority of people today would be clueless to understand the meaning of. This fact, for a phrase meant to mock a person’s naivety, is just the icing on the cake.


You Don’t Know Shit from Shinola

  1. The main piece: Shinola (Proverbial Insult)

“You don’t know shit from Shinola.”

  1. Background information about the performance from the informant: why do they know or like this piece? Where/who did they learn it from? What does it mean to them? Etc.

“My grandpa used to say it to my dad, and my dad said it to me. He said one day my dad said something, and he said, ‘You know what, you don’t know shit from Shinola.’

“Shinola is brown shoe polish. So it’s the same color as shit. So no one knows shit from Shinola.”

  1. The context of the performance

It’s a proverbial insult that members of his family used to say when the informant was growing up. He said that “it doesn’t impart wisdom, it’s saying that you have none.”

  1. Finally, your thoughts about the piece

Insults and teasing are often a way of developing close relationships and building rapport. This joking insult passed from grandfather to father to son shows the teasing nature of their relationships and the lighthearted attitudes in their families. This proverbial insult also provides a way for elder members of the family to reprimand children when they become overconfident or misspeak: while it clearly puts them in their place, they know that it is a “tough-love,” teasing phrase and are not too wounded by the insult. It also may show that the insulter does not view the insultee as mature or old enough yet.

  1. Informant Details

The informant is a 22 year old American male and grew up in Tiburon, where he spent lots of time with his father and grandfather, as well as the other kids in his tight-knit neighborhood. His primary language is English, and he currently resides in Los Angeles.