Loretta Barnard

The art of the insult

While sticks and stones may break bones, the insult remains the only way to ruin someone utterly. But, what separates the good from the bad?

 

 

It’s happened to us all. That time when someone insults you, your response is just pathetic and ten minutes later you think of a brilliant comeback but damn, that moment has gone forever. An insult can be a powerful weapon; an insult can be witty and clever, and an insult can also be just plain rude. Generally speaking, we feel little compunction about hurling insults at people we’ve never met and are unlikely ever to meet, such as politicians, movie stars, musicians, business people. But closer to home, people are more than capable and even willing to insult colleagues, friends and lovers.

What constitutes a good insult? Succinctness is key: an effective insult must be pithy – Benjamin Disraeli on William Gladstone, “He has not a single redeeming defect”; Paul Keating on John Hewson, “Debating with him is like being flogged by a warm lettuce.” Lyndon Johnson summed up Gerald Ford thus, “He’s so dumb he can’t fart and chew gum at the same time.” Politics is fertile ground for insults and you don’t have to look hard to find some rippers.

As well as being pithy, a valid insult must also contain elements of scorn and disrespect. Actress Bette Davis was well known for her acerbic put-downs. She famously had a long-running feud with Joan Crawford (“I wouldn’t piss on Joan Crawford if she was on fire,” she once remarked) and she slighted fellow actress Olivia de Havilland when she said, “You were very good Olivia. When you weren’t in a scene with me, you managed to keep the audience’s attention.” Ouch.

Offensiveness is usually inbuilt too. I’m pretty sure Morrissey was offended by Elvis Costello’s brutal “Morrissey writes wonderful song titles, but sadly he often forgets to write the song.” Likewise, writer Lillian Hellman had to have felt slighted when Mary McCarthy said of her, “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.”

Shakespeare, needless to say, was master of the insult and Shakespeare insult kits are readily available in shops and online. It’s rather fun creating your own insults using words of the Bard placed in your own particular order. Still, no one can match the man himself for top-notch insults, such as “I was seeking for a fool when I found you” or “base dunghill villain” or “I am sick when I do look on thee,” or the withering “Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.”

There should be some wit involved… Heinrich Heine left his entire estate to his wife on the condition she marry again. In his will he wrote, “then there will be at least one man to regret my death.”

Insults are mean by nature, and these days with our immediate access to anything, they can be spread far and wide very quickly. If they’re clever, we hungry consumers gobble them up with relish. They get cited and requoted over and over and there are insults that could definitely be legitimately considered a form of art. Beethoven reportedly harshly commented to an unknown composer, “I like your opera, I think I will set it to music”. Maybe opera brings out the inner bitch: Benjamin Britten reacted to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress with “I liked the opera very much, everything but the music.” English conductor Thomas Beecham was master of the put-down. Once asked if he’d ever played the music of Stockhausen, he retorted, “No, but I think I’ve trodden in some.”

Another element to a good insult is memorability. Truman Capote’s snide assessment of Jack Kerouac’s cult classic novel On the Road – “That’s not writing, that’s typing” – will still be remembered long after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, as will Dorothy Parker’s stinging “The woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say ‘No’ in any of them.” Mark Twain’s “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” is not only memorable but scathingly brilliant. A tad unfair perhaps, but that’s what insults are all about.

Insults, of course, aren’t confined to individuals. There’s plenty of invective to go around – racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist; there’s abuse against professions, religions, you name it. When she heard another soprano was performing in Australia, Dame Nellie Melba advised her to “sing ’em muck – it’s all they understand.” Poet Walt Whitman remarked that his fellow Americans “probably made love worse than any other race.” Napoleon famously called England “a nation of shopkeepers.”

Shakespeare had little respect for the legal profession: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary is full of waggish inherently insulting definitions, such as “A dentist is a prestidigitator who, putting metal in your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket.”


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In more recent times, we’re assailed by foul-mouthed celebrity chefs who get very worked up about cooking, but let’s face it, when it all boils down (pun intended) it’s just food. Gordon Ramsay insults people all the time, but he’s not terribly clever about it. After all, anyone spit out popular expletives. The best he can do: “Honestly, chimichanga … chimi chuck it in the bin,” is at least a little more imaginative than his usual tirades, but it’s not to him that we turn for a good insult.

Nor to Donald Trump, whose sexist vitriol has had wide coverage. He’s called women “fat pigs”, “slobs”, rated certain individuals as “no longer a 10”, and of course, he’s rather proud of having grabbed – without permission – women’s genitalia. He insults entire nations by calling them “sad”, “pathetic” and “shitholes”. Insults like these, deeply offensive as they are, are simply facile. There is no skill or cleverness about them, they’re merely hysterical rantings of a very unpleasant man who often sounds as if he’s 11 years old. To really rate as a superior insult, there should be some wit involved, especially if it is also disdainful. When German writer Heinrich Heine died in 1856, he left his entire estate to his wife on the condition she marry again. In his will he wrote, “then there will be at least one man to regret my death.”

It’s no surprise that many famous insults were uttered or written by famous people. Whatever first-rate insult we may make to someone, you can be pretty certain it won’t be recorded for posterity, so if you come up with a corker, you’ll just have to enjoy it in the privacy of your own head. And perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind that there’s already a great deal of hate in the world, so if you have aspersions cast at you, try to take it on the chin. That…or respond by borrowing the line that former Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies once used on a heckler: “I did not catch your words sir, if indeed they were words.” Priceless.

The trick to a creative insult is to eschew anger and abuse – after all, there’s little skill in slinging four-letter words – and instead aim for something a cut above. Oscar Wilde has the last word and this is a worthy comeback to anyone who may have the temerity to insult you: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.” See you later!

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who has authored four non-fiction books, been a contributing writer to a wide range of reference books and whose essays have been published across a number of platforms. A regular contributor to The Big Smoke, she also coordinates the TBS Next Gen program.

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