The Grammarphobia Blog

Nasty Business

Q: Help me win a bet. I say Thomas Nast’s political cartoons gave us the word “nasty,” but my girlfriend disagrees. She’s read somewhere that this is bunkum. Please be the referee.

A. We hope you didn’t bet a lot because you’ll have to pay up.

Nast (1840-1902) was an editorial cartoonist whose caricatures in Harper’s Weekly helped bring down William M. Tweed, a corrupt political boss in New York City.

Nast could be nasty. An 1871 cartoon, for example, showed Boss Tweed as a potbellied vulture feeding on the carcass of New York.

But Nast didn’t give us “nasty,” a word that has been in English since the late 1300s.

At first, it meant “filthy” or “dirty” (as it still does), but in the late 1400s it also came to mean “annoying” or “contemptible.”

By the early 1800s, years before Nast was born, the meaning had widened to include “bad tempered,” “spiteful,” and “unkind”—adjectives that Nast’s cartoon subjects might have used to describe him.

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