Friday, August 10, 2007

The Poetry of Insult

I love a good insult.

There are few forms of wit that can match the well formed slur. Verbal abuse, properly executed, is one of the highest forms of expression. A well formed smear is poetry nonpareil. Although I believe that this highest of literary forms has been largely ignored, imagine my delight to discover that there is actually a journal dedicated to “verbal aggression.” It is appropriately named Maledicta. Isn’t that precious? I would warn you before visiting that site, it is replete with "strong language" and is not for the faint of heart or those with delicate sensibilities.

Now it’s not that I personlly like to practice insulting people. Those who know me know that I generally speak with respectful care and precision. Yet the man who enjoys collecting stamps may not be a particularly good correspondent. He just appreciates the stamps.

When it comes to insults, the lazy and inarticulate can of course now rely on technology to produce their insults. It is easy to find websites that will manufacture cheap mass produced insults. These are humorous in their way, but they lack the nuance and appeal of real “handmade” insults. The true aficionado of slurs can always appreciate the efforts of the clumsy amateur as at least possessing a lively authenticity that the machine made insult lacks. After all, it must be said that the most important ingredient in artful rudeness is soul.

It is important as well not to mistake mere verbal excess for wit. If your idea of a powerful insult is that it must have at least 12 words with 4 syllables or more, then you are missing the point. If your subject (or your audience) has to spend more time figuring out what you just said than it took you to say it, you have failed to be effectively insulting.

I also must say that while profanity may be used with most excellent effect, it’s overuse renders insulting language dull, in the same way that too much spice can ruin a dish. The clumsy insulteur simply piles curse words on top of another without regard to meter, logic or any sort of rhetorical or poetic device. One can use profanity in abundance, in the same way that Indian cooking uses spice with an especially unapologetic boldness. But even Indian cuisine pays attention to the balancing of flavors and textures. The more dense the profanity, the higher must be that art to lift it above the gutter. When it works, it is sublime. When it does not, it’s just ugly.

Classical insults fall into one of several general categories

Appearance – physical appearance, mode of dress, race and or gender
Heritage -- national derivation, family, social class, or citizenship
Personality-- intelligence, skill, education, morals, behavior.

They may be executed thus

The direct attack – the upfront, no-holds down verbal assault. Ideally it is both clever and shocking, but either can suffice, depending on your goal.

That’s nice tie. Does it come in silk?
You are the only case where the baby died and the afterbirth lived.
It’s amazing that such a big head can hold such a small mind.

When you are dead, I will have your skin tanned and made into a saddle so I can spend the rest of my life farting on you. (from "Lords of the North" by Bernard Cornwell)

The riposte – The quick and unexpected turning of someone’s attempt at wit back on themselves. This is a glorious thing to behold.

Mr. Churchill, I perceive that you are drunk.
Yes milady I am, but tomorrow I shall be sober, while you shall still be ugly.


The veiled strike – accomplished to the face, but in such a way that the insulted is not aware that he has just been dissed. Sometimes this amounts to carefully covered sarcasm. Since it is very situational, it’s hard to provide good examples here.

A true insult is always given face to face. Otherwise it is merely gossip, which require neither art nor nerve.

Insults do not require anger or hatred. In fact, many of the finest insults are between the best of friends, who show their affection for one another by the trading of effrontery. If not affectionate, then many find the trading of insults to be very entertaining, as in the African American tradition called The Dozens.

We have not even touched on Shakespeare's insults, or applications of insulting speech in a variety of social situations. It really doesn't matter, I suppose. If you don't like it that's too bad. Your just bitter because your parents wanted a boy.