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Fun with Literary Insults and Our Need for Comedy

I got to thinking about insults recently after reading a novel (Nine Perfect Strangers, by Lianne Moriarty) in which a teen-aged brother and sister insult each other using insults from Shakespeare.

In these days of heightened sensitivity to everything, it may not be politically correct to write about insults. But feeling so afraid that we will cross some line has also made us afraid to have fun. Literary insults can be very entertaining, a high form of comedy. Something about the investment in creative language puts the literary insult into a different category than plain, hurtful insults, which will henceforth be called 'verbal abuse.'

A really creative insult contains within it, it seems to me, a kind of affection, and always a sense of humor. Literary insults can have a cruel edge in their cleverness, of course, but they are not straightforwardly mean. They assume, it seems to me, a level of intelligence in the insultee, the assumption that he or she will understand and appreciate the wit involved in composition of the insult. A creative, literary insult is a kind of backwards compliment. (Although sometimes the insult may be complex or obtuse enough to leave the insultee scratching his or her head, and that would be part of the fun.)

While insults can hurt, that is far from the whole story. As writer Sean Walsh says, "an insult, meticulously crafted, can disclose a kind of acknowledgment of the autonomy and dignity of the person insulted."

Insults should be distinguished from verbal abuse, which is meant to hurt or embarrass, is often crude, often related to a person's appearance or religious or ethnic background, and often composed of one unprintable noun and one or two nasty descriptive adjectives. Such verbal abuse has been heard in schoolyards and on the street ever since there were schoolyards and streets. In the current era social media gives everyone a platform for politics, self-absorbed self-reporting and verbal abuse of others. We are against verbal abuse, one hundred percent, and it is not this of which we speak. We speak of the loving use of language. Those who love language hold it in their hands, run it through their fingers. It is tactile, endlessly new, an ever-changing cornucopia of words with which to compose love poems, sonnets on the beauty of nature, great novels, reflections on life and death. And insults.

Perhaps literary insults could be arrows in our bows, once in a while, when a rejoinder to a verbal abuser is called for. It is best not to engage with verbal abusers at all, but if we feel we must reply to someone who abuses us, face to face or on-line, we can call on Shakespeare and dismiss the abuser with, "Away, you moldy rogue, away!" (Henry IV) or "You eater of broken meats!" (King Lear) – see if the abuser understands that one (I actually don't, but it sounds very clever). Or, "I scorn you, scurvy companion" (Henry IV, one of the more insulting plays).

This is one of the virtues of some of the more obscure or fanciful literary insults. The insultee knows s/he has been insulted, but may not quite understand how.

Referring to an offensive person in the insulting third person (an actual grammatical category, or should be), we could say, "That trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag of guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly, that reverend vice, that gray Iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years" (Henry IV – really an extremely insulting play).

When a two-faced abuser, who speaks sweetly to us face to face and then to other people, or on-line, abuses us, we could say, "Thine forward voice, now, is to speak well of thine friend; thine backward voice is to utter foul speeches and to detract" (The Tempest).

If we feel a mild threat should be issued, we can say, "You scullion! You rampallion! I'll tickle your catastrophe!" (Henry IV).

Shakespeare, whose influence on the English language has been immeasurable, is an excellent source of insults. There are other great literary insulters, too.

Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor despised each other. At one unfortunate meeting Nancy Astor said to Churchill, "If I were your wife, I would poison your coffee." To which Churchill unhesitatingly replied, "If I were your husband, I would drink it."

When Churchill was asked what he thought of Clement Atlee, the prime minister who came after him, he said that Atlee was "A modest man, with much to be modest about."

While I do not approve of insults based in a person's appearance, one does have to admire the wit in Churchill's description of Charles de Gaulle: "What can you do with a man who looks like a female llama surprised when bathing?"

Oscar Wilde, that Irish wit, was good with general insults:

"Some people cause happiness wherever they go, some whenever they go."

"The English have a miraculous power to change wine into water."

"Of course, America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up."

Mark Twain was also very good at general insults:

"Reader, suppose you were an idiot. Now suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself."

Be kind to one another, dear readers, but be unafraid. We are losing the privilege of laughter, the unfettered creative joy of language. If everything is 'nice,' then nothing is. Comedy is largely built on insults, and we need comedy.

I will leave you with a quote by British playwright Christopher Fry: "Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith."

Till next time.

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