I was surprised to find that I have never covered this term for a stupid or foolish person, given that I have done wazzock and shitgibbon, and that British insults are much in the air. The OED describes “numpty” as originating in Scotland and gives this possible etymology: “Origin uncertain; perhaps an alteration of or , with ending perhaps remodelled after ” The first citation is from 1985 (‘They are a pair of turkeys,’ he said. ‘Numpties, the both of them.’–P. Firth, The Great Pervader), and more recent ones show a migration to England.
Neither the OED nor Green’s Dictionary of Slang show U.S. use, but the term did appear in the New York Times in 2009, when Dallas-born novelist Bill Cotter said:
In the mid-’80s, Boston’s Kenmore Square, where part of [his novel Fever Chart] is set, was home to three-card-monte men, ordinary punks, beer-devastated Red Sox bleacher-seat numpties, the Guardian Angel menace, and the only music venue worth visiting in that fourth-rate city, the Rat, a black basement often populated with bloody-nosed hardcore girls swinging tiny fists of stone.
More recently, I’ve started to see it over on Twitter, inevitably regarding the most frequent subject of all these insults, the U.S. president. As I’ve noted previously, the Tweetdeck application lets you filter tweets geographically. Here are some recent ones that use “numpty” and were posted within 200 kilometers of New York City:
Back in 2013, I looked at U.S. adoption of the British political word “backbencher,” referring to junior members of Parliament who literally sit in the back benches. [Update: As the comments reveal, this is not a good definition of British “backbencher.”] Three years later I noted failed Republican presidential nominee Jeb Bush’s habit of using the word to disparage his rivals in the race.
Now, Nancy Friedman reports a surge in U.S. use of the word, thanks to newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (aka AOC), a liberal Democrat who seems to really get on Republicans’ last nerve. “Backbencher” is actually one of their milder epithets for her, but it might be the most popular. Nancy writes:
Do a Google search for “Ocasio Cortez backbencher” and you get results from the Orlando Weekly (“For all the attention paid Ocasio-Cortez, however, she’s just a backbencher”), The Federalist (“She could easily become yesterday’s news, dismissed like other backbenchers and cranks within the House Democratic caucus”), The Hill (“[I told her] to pick some of those issues and really lead on them from day one and not to be told to keep her head down or be a backbencher, but to come here and lead” – California Rep. Ro Khanna), The Advocate (“If she wants to even be moderately effective as a legislator and not some permanent backbencher … she’s gonna have to play the game”), and Esquire (“that backbenchers-should-be-seen-and-not-heard business should’ve died with Sam Rayburn”).
And she reproduced some tweets, including:
It’s almost makes you think that all these people were working from the same talking points.