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As a non-native Anglophone, it can be a bit more of a challenge to do creative writing in English. Thesauri have helped me a lot, improving sentences like "Sokka caught his boomerang" to "Sokka snagged his boomerang out of the air". But there's only a limited amount of words related to the concept of catching something.

Where I am struggling more is in domains where the synonyms are much more numerous. In particular, insults. I was looking for a one-syllable word that someone would use to describe a generically stupid/silly person. thesaurus.com was really helpful. Perhaps a bit too helpful: I got dunce, dolt, twit, oaf, dope, chump, dork, sap, and many more.

I was about to chose dunce purely by gut feel, before I consulted my Kiwi friend who speaks the language natively. He could immediately tell that I shouldn't use dunce, for it is American, apparently. Twit on the other hand is British, and dork is closer to someone who is out of touch than genuinely stupid. I settled on dolt in the end; but I would not have known those things if it hadn't been for him.

The thesaurus didn't seem accurate enough for me, because it did not describe twit as British; and it can be a big interruption in writing to have to pause to find the right term, when there's twenty options to choose from rather than just a handful, and you would have to open twenty tabs to find the right shade of meaning.

So what I am looking for is perhaps an online dictionary that deals specifically with insults (and every insult, not just a bullet point list of "35 Aussie curses that will shock you" - I am in fact more often looking for words that are specifically non-regional), and/or a technique, strategy, or just some tips to help find the right word for something as inherently subjective as a dolt.

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    "it can be a big interruption in writing to have to pause to find the right term" - It doesn't have to interrupt anything. After all, you don't have to find the perfect word right away. Put something that seems good enough, maybe mark it to remind you to find a replacement later, and leave it until you get around to editing the scene. – Llewellyn Dec 13 '19 at 20:19
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Insults are a tricky part of vernacular to manage since they often vary widely not just by country but by region, the age of the people using them and time period. There's often some overlap but assuming the setting of the story is Earth as we know you'd have to research the specific sort of insults common to the setting.

And err… when the setting is not Earth? Or when it is anywhere outside the Anglosphere, and featuring characters who are never actually speaking English? Having Germans with full English dialogue still say dummkopf feels a bit off. To be honest, the majority of my writing takes place in those settings because I know specific English vernaculars are too easy for me to mess up.

When not on earth - well, at that point you get a great deal of freedom to define your own set of insults. If you're aiming to use one's the reader is familiar with then it becomes more about using the vernacular that your intended audience would share.

The scenario of a German (who is nominally talking in German but in an English text) is slightly more complex - where there is no obvious direct equivalent actually interspersing the odd German word (such as "dummkopf") is not as jarring as you'd expect. In fact it can actually serve as a nice little nudge to the reader to remind them that while they are reading English the character is actually speaking German.

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    It also helps that dummkopf is a somewhat familiar word to an English audience, both because it's a cognate of dummy and the word itself is popular. You cannot really have a Chinese character pepper their dialogue with báichī and chǔn zhū - nobody would get that these words were even insulting. I think literal translations may be the solution there, "dishonour upon your cow"-style. – KeizerHarm Dec 13 '19 at 21:38
  • @KeizerHarm sometimes insults can be understood even if the word is totally unknown just from context. Also, in a longer work, sometimes the reader may actually learn non-English words that are used repeatedly, if the first few uses are clear enough. – Ryan_L Dec 14 '19 at 4:04
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One place to look is an etymology site. (etymology is word origin): Here is one for "twit". It says, as a noun,

"foolish, stupid and ineffectual person," 1934, British slang, popular 1950s-60s, crossed over to U.S. with British sitcoms. It probably developed from twit (v.) in the sense of "reproach," but it may be influenced by nitwit.

If I am writing a story set in a particular time; I check that site often, using "twit" before 1934 would be anachronistic.

A less direct clue is to use the Urban Dictionary, it is crowd-sourced with basically no filters, has much less formal definitions (some of them are just jokes), but you can see from the upvotes/downvotes what people think of the definitions. The NUMBER of upvotes+downvotes is an indicator of how often the slang is used, and the RATIO is an indicator for how much people agree with the given definition.

Urban dictionary can give you a little more information about cultural usage than you will get from more formal online dictionaries.

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  • Etymology is a good starting point - though it falls apart when the time period is medieval, at which point you'd have to be writing in Middle English for the words to be accurate ^^; – KeizerHarm Dec 13 '19 at 19:15
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Twit is not unfamiliar to Americans and usually is a childish insult. A Dunce is a person who is incapable of learning (not necessarily because he/she is stupid, as will be discussed in a moment) and is usually used to refer to a child of primary/elementary school age (5-10). The term doesn't ordinarily reflect intelligence, as the term entered into American Lexicon as a form of school punishment where the child was essentially given a time out for acting out in class and was made to stand in a corner while wearing the Dunce Cap, a tall conical hat made from paper, with the word "Dunce" "Dummy" or letter "D" written on the side facing the class. Being labled the "Dunce" was not desirable and would lead to teasing by peers, thus enforcing good behavior to avoid. Most activities that would merit the punishment were class room disruptions, not poor grades or marks or incorrect answers. Although no longer in use, many American Cartoons will use the Dunce Cap as a quick way to convey the character's inability to learn or out right stupid moments to the audience, and traveled with American Pop culture. It's not a strong insult.

English is plagued with many regional terms (It's not the only one, as Portuguese is different between it's home land and the variant spoken in Brazil and American Spanish is different enough from European Spanish that English Film companies will dub their films into both varients for international releases). English has a higher degree of it as British, American, Australian, and New Zealand English all have unique words... American and British English are both very well known to all English speakers, due to it's media dominance (Americans and Brits are aware of each others usage, and make jokes mocking the difference all the time. Kiwis only recently favored their own accents and usage over "Broadcast English" which attempted to sound as British as possible. Australians also have some weird turns of phrases and usage of language, but it's not unintelligible as it's portrayed and the rougher nature is mostly everyone else is more mocking Austrailia's nature as a former penal colony more than anything. There's also a Canadian accent which isn't all that known as it's 99% the same as American English (they use British spelling) and only Americans are allowed to mock (for reference, it's an American accent, accept all long O sound like they do in "boot", all questions end with the verbal tick "eh?" and "Sorry" (which sounds like "Soar-ry") needs to be injected everywhere in the line. As for why only Americans are allowed to mock it, it's more to do with American and Canadians tend to argue about who's country is better, but that's because of their strong friendship.).

Edit: Thesauri are great to find words with both similar and opposite meaning, but if you aren't familiar with it, dictionaries will have a more nuanced usage and speak to how appropriate it is. For a quick example, the suggestion of "Dork" is a lot mild in the late 2010s then it was in the past. As recently as the 1980s, it wasn't used on television as it was another word for "penis" though that meaning is largely archaic these days, and it's usually a mild put down said among children and is fine for kids tv these days. There's also a lot of weirdness due to English having a high concentration of Loan Words, mostly for being the bastard love child of German and French.

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  • Thank you for the answer. I think my approach was the other way - I specifically wanted to avoid regional-specific terms. That's because the majority of my characters are not actually Anglophones: they can be Dutch, German, Evenki, or fantasy cultures (I tend to avoid writing anglophones because I know they have a specific dialect that I'll inevitably mess up). – KeizerHarm Dec 13 '19 at 15:57
  • @KeizerHarm: Is English your first language? Is it meant for an English audience or a Dutch or German or Evenki (I have no idea where someone who speaks that is even from, forgiveness). – hszmv Dec 13 '19 at 16:13
  • As I said in the description, English is my second language. I'm Dutch myself. The reason I want to write in English is because they're a far wider audience, which is international. As for the Evenki, they are a tribe from the Russian far east. Let's say that I have not been having any trouble with world building :) – KeizerHarm Dec 13 '19 at 16:23
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    @KeizerHarm: I would also highly recomend the English Language version of TVTropes, which has the more important nuances of the English Language discussed in several articles (Two nations seperated by a common language and Useful notes about dialects and common phrases found in various nations that speak English. I think New Zealand doesn't have this, but they're often dropped from maps of the globe, so not knowing what a Kiwi sounds like is the least of their worries... Though they were recently voted the sexist English Accent so...). – hszmv Dec 13 '19 at 16:37
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    @KeizerHarm: I will say, your english is very good (or mine is terrible... or both) so I think the best recomendation is to write your story and then ask either a British Person or an American person to read and help with word choice (the latter is because there are 350 million Americans... finding one isn't hard. The former because they're closer and Americans love accents anyway, so you're not offending them.). I am dating a Kiwi. He had no idea there was a Canadian accent when we first started dating. – hszmv Dec 13 '19 at 17:09
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You seem to be going about this in a writer-centric fashion - which is probably not the best way forward.

The majority of characterisation is achieved through language and behaviour. "What kind of person would have used that language?"

English Language usage is dependent on exposure and experience as opposed to locale. I can assure you 'Dunce' is not particularly American - just very dated. 'Dolt' is archaic public school British. Most of your examples are dated.

Radio waves travel faster than word of mouth, hence, every European understands every US derogatory term.

A thesaurus cannot help you with modern spoken language as the evolution of slang is rapid. I have used terms such as 'Slapper' and 'Hood-rat' in place of 'slut' to the confusion of many readers.

A native Londoner may describe a character as a 'wrong'un' where as a native New Yorker would describe him a 'loser'. American losers are British 'plebs', minions, to the movers and shakers.

Try the Urban Dictionary.

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    +1 The OP's approach was logical as it had worked for other words but the very slang-heavy nature of insults mean that it didn't quite cut it here. – motosubatsu Dec 13 '19 at 15:35
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    @KeizerHarm Pretty much yes - Insults are a tricky part of vernacular to manage since they often vary widely not just by country but by region, the age of the people using them and time period. There's often some overlap but assuming the setting of the story is Earth as we know you'd have to research the specific sort of insults common to the setting. – motosubatsu Dec 13 '19 at 15:46
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    @KeizerHarm: I wouldn't say dunce is dated, so much as it is weak and wouldn't be used in favor of stronger insults (Stupid, Dumb, and Idiot are stronger and more universal) and will typically speak to one's behavior in a classroom more than actual intelligence. – hszmv Dec 13 '19 at 16:02
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    @KeizerHarm When not on earth - well at that point you get a great deal of freedom to define your own set of insults. If you're aiming to use one's the reader is familiar with then it becomes more about using the vernacular that your intended audience would share. – motosubatsu Dec 13 '19 at 16:06
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    @KeizerHarm The scenario of a German (who is nominally talking in German but in an English text) is slightly more complex - where there is no obvious direct equivalent actually interspersing the odd German word (such as dummkopf) is not as jarring as you'd expect. – motosubatsu Dec 13 '19 at 16:08
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You might do well by digesting relevant English-language media. You can choose the national origin if you want to insult like a particular country's native speaker and you can also somewhat dial in on class, race, time-period etc by the particular films/TV/books you choose.

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