Tosspots, wraprascals, and Tuesday’s word of the day, makebate

The editors at describe Tuesday’s Word-of-the-Day, makebate (someone who causes contention or discord), as “archaic,” but we suspect they would welcome its resurrection, what with the rise of internet trolls and all.

Makebate’s unexpected appearance in my inbox gave my heart a lift. It illustrates a disappearing word form I admire: sometimes called a tosspot, or more pedantically, an exocentric compound. These are compound nouns, often jocular and insulting, that take the form verb + object = subject.

A few familiar examples: Skinflint, pinchpenny, killjoy, pickpocket, spoilsport, fussbudget.

Tosspots have an antique flavour. Many are completely unfamiliar today. Words of this type are no longer entering our beautiful language, and that’s a shame. Nowadays, if we invent a device that cuts power to an overloaded electrical circuit, we call it a circuit breaker. Had the word been invented a few hundred years ago, we would have called it a breakcircuit.

Common examples are few: scarecrow, breakwater, dreadnought, spitfire, breakfast, spendthrift, pastime, makeshift, stopgap, turnstile.

Most are more obscure: jerkwater, scapegrace stretchgut (glutton), stretchhalter or stretchhemp (one who deserves to be hung), stretchleg (that which lies prostrate, as in death), stretchneck (pillory), stretchrope (bell-ringer), catchfly, wraprascal.

Tosspots often denote stinginess: clutchfist, pinchpenny, nipcake, nipcrumb, nipcheese, nipfarthing, or criminality: cutpurse, cutthroat, turncoat, spoilsport, tattletale, thatchgallows, and the eponymous tosspot (drunkard – one who tosses back pots of ale).

Derisive terms for youth, deficiency, and all-around stupidity abound: lackland (younger son), lackbeard (immature youth), lackall (deficient person), lackbrain, lacklatin, lacklearning, lackmind, lacksense, lackthought, lackwit.

Modern words of the tosspot formation seem to be of the -all variety: catchall, coverall, overalls cureall, carryall, and healall (the plant pictured here).

The internet holds a few, mostly dry tributes to this class of noun (see: here, hereherehere, and here). A wonderful exception is Andrew E. Norman’s hilarious article, Tosspots and Wraprascals, in Vol. 5, No. 1, of Verbatim, the Language Quarterly, a defunct newsletter founded by the late lexicographer Laurence Urdang. Alas, it is unavailable online, but many libraries would have it, in back issues of Verbatim, or as anthologized in the volume, Verbatim: From the Bawdy to the Sublime, the Best Writing on. Language for Word Lovers, Grammar Mavens, and Armchair. Linguists, Erin McKean, editor.

Here’s my attempt at a canonical list of tosspots, a work in progress. Please send comments and suggestions.