Dillweed (As An Insult)

The Awl’s holiday series on flavors and spices.

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In 1999, on the Straight Dope message board, a user named HeyHomie posed a question under the header “Dill-based insults in the 1970s,” which is a degree of specificity I can appreciate. He asked, “I hear the boys on “That 70’s Show” call each other ‘Dillweed’ and ‘Dillhole.’ I don’t remember hearing those used as insults until “Beavis and Butt-Head.” Is this an anachronism? Or were these indults [sic] used in the 70’s?” Despite the age of the original post, it was still receiving semi-regular replies as late as 2009—many of them reminiscing about high school, and at least one passionately defending of the city of Beloit, Wisconsin. How did an honest, hard-working herb get co-opted by a bunch of dirtbag teenagers? Eighteen years and no definitive answer later, I want to get to the bottom of this for everyone on that message board.

Dill is a trickster. When its fine leaves are gathered and bound by a rubber band into a bushy frond, damp from overhead produce spray, it’s sometimes mistaken for its cousin, fennel. Ask someone to describe the taste of dill and most resort to comparing it to something else—a pickle. But that’s no more accurate than saying ketchup tastes like tomatoes. It’s the pickle tastes like dill, all herbaceous and mellow and savory. So how did dillweed, a flavor that enhances the taste of everything from borscht to salmon, and whose delicate leaves beautify otherwise dull-looking dishes, end up as the go-to insult in any situation where it’s socially unacceptable to call someone a dickhead?

The word dill is derived from dylla, a Norse word meaning to soothe or lull. That makes sense to me since my palate has always registered it as a low, earthy taste; a counterweight to other flavors, grounding acidic ones (dill pickles) and punching up the contrast of mellow ones (cured salmon). Christina Xenos, co-author of Opa! The Healthy Greek Cookbook, finds it to be a polarizing herb. “I think people either love it or hate it (much like cilantro). I personally couldn’t imagine [Greek] dishes without it, but I’ve come across many people who won’t touch any dish that has a strong dill profile,” she told me in an email.

Dill is perhaps even more associated with the food of Eastern Europe, with near-ubiquitous use in both Russian and Ukrainian dishes. Despite the mutual love, some Russians (likely seizing on the fact that their word for dill, ukrop, also begins with the same three letters as Ukraine) use it as an insult. According to Moscow-based correspondent Michele A. Berdy of The Moscow Times, Ukrainians are often just referred to in Russian as “Dills,” and the nation “Dill-Land.”

I also talked with Dr. Timothy B. Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts whose work centers on the study of psycholinguistics, particularly as it relates to cursing. If, like me, your hunch was that dillweed was a gateway cuss, a side door to sneak into the grownup party, it turns out, we were right.

“Children start out using words that adults might not find offensive (fraidy cat, poo poo head, bum, bum head, chicken) but as children age, their lexicon takes on a more and more adult-like nature. So a kid could get away with saying dillweed but not the “dick” versions—that is less likely to be sanctioned by parents or teachers,” he wrote me.

While this answer covers the “why” it doesn’t so much get at the how. How did we get from dick to dillweed? Or, as I politely tried to ask this patient college professor, is it because it starts with, you know, dil, as in dildo? Jay wasn’t sure, but did concede that “dill is more likely to refer to the penis,” so we’re in the right neighborhood at least.

“Curse words children use must have resonance with their peers—so these early expressions can be very idiosyncratic—hearing insults such as “bum bum head” in one preschool environment but not in others,” Jay said. Anecdotally, more Midwesterners I asked seemed to recall its use in their childhood than did others, but it also indisputably has resonance.

Take this 2008 commercial for AT&T where an affable-seeming metalhead is described as a dillweed for not picking up his phone. It’s heavy-handed in its “How do you do, fellow kids” vibe, but it’s not wholly without its charm. And that’s partly due to its effective deployment of the “minced oath,” when a euphemism takes the place of profanity. It’s a construct that has been kicked around in comedy from W.C. Fields’ “Godfrey Daniels” (subbing for goddammit), to Ralphie’s accidental “Fuuuuudge” in “A Christmas Story,” to Eleanor’s liberal use of “fork” on “The Good Place.” It’s a knowing, winking way to work blue in mixed company.

In other words, it’s not only the thing you say when you can’t say the better thing, it’s also sometimes the funnier thing. As “Community” creator Dan Harmon explained in a 2009 New York Times interview about the vulgarity creep on network TV, “As a writer, you’re always reaching for a more potent way to call somebody a jerk.”

Part of the reason the origin of dillweed-the-insult is so hard to pin down time-wise, is that dillweed-the-herb never ceded its ground. The term is still used interchangeably with dill, and plenty of straight-faced chefs on YouTube seem to be able to use it without self-consciousness. But for those of us of a certain age, it’s possible we’ll never hear it without a tug at our Gen-X hearts. And that’s largely thanks to Mike Judge, creator of “Beavis and Butt-Head,” (and so much more). I reached out to him as a kind of Hail Mary attempt to put this to rest. To my surprise, he responded:

So there’s dill weed the spice of course, and obviously I didn’t invent that name. But if you’re calling somebody that as an insult, I’m pretty sure it came from the show. Here’s how it happened: when I was in junior high in the 70s people would call each other dick weed. It was a pretty common insult. I tried to do it in ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ and standards and practices at MTV wouldn’t let me say it. They wouldn’t let me have them call each other ‘dildo’ either.

So one day when I was recording, I had Butt-Head call Beavis ‘dill weed’ and it kind of got a laugh, and it cleared with the network censors, so I just kind of kept doing it. The rest is history I guess.

Turns out we should’ve started with Judge in the first place. When I thanked him for replying, he said “No one has ever asked me about that, I don’t think.” HeyHomie, if you’re still out there, you were probably right.