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Of Karens and Quislings: How Names Became Insults

Whimsical collage of a raccoon dressed in a ball gown

It’s not often that someone’s name transforms into an insult, but when it does, it’s pretty memorable!

We recently witnessed the transformation of “Karen” from an innocuous name to one with a whole host of negative connotations. However, this isn’t the first time such a transformation has occurred.

Throughout history, there’s a strong pattern of names being used as insults, particularly for traitors.

If someone’s a Benedict Arnold, you probably know that means they’re a traitor. But what about a quisling?

Same thing!

Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian politician during World War II who led the collaborationist government after the German invasion. Unlike most of his compatriots, however, he welcomed the invasion and supported the Nazis’ vile agenda.

Norwegians quickly began using the word “quisling” as shorthand for “traitor,” and we picked up the word in English shortly thereafter.

In 1941, Churchill helped propel the word’s new meaning, remarking in one of his now-famous speeches:

A vile race of Quislings—to use a new word which will carry the scorn of mankind down the centuries—is hired to fawn upon the conqueror, to collaborate in his designs, and to enforce his rule upon their fellow countrymen, while groveling low themselves.”-Winston Churchill

On a more lighthearted note, the Times published an article in which they noted how fitting the word “quisling” is as an insult:

To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor… they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous. Visually it has the supreme merit of beginning with a Q, which (with one august exception) has long seemed to the British mind to be a crooked, uncertain and slightly disreputable letter, suggestive of the questionable, the querulous, the quavering of quaking quagmires and quivering quicksands, of quibbles and quarrels, of queasiness, quackery, qualms and Quilp.-The Times

I personally think the “ing” ending is of linguistic benefit, too, reminiscent of inanimate objects and other trifling things. It’s a great way to add a belittling element to the word, which is always helpful in an insult!

And there you have it: “quisling” is another word for “traitor,” named after a Norwegian collaborator during World War II.

You probably knew what a Benedict Arnold is, and now you know that a quisling is basically the same thing!

Listen to the Vocabbett podcast for more on this story. You can catch it below, or on your favorite podcast player!

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