The Art of Insult


Let me immediately establish that I’m not condoning the art of insult. I will admit, however, to a certain fascination for the practice of it. I’m not talking here about your ham-fisted schoolyard, or indeed workplace, resident boorish bully. Nor am I talking about the angry, abusive expletive-deletive-ridden rejoinder. (By way of an aside, in all my years in schools I can recall being subject to the latter on just the one occasion, and that was from a thwarted, highly frustrated adolescent delivering a general spray rather than personally-directed invective.)

But take the likes of the 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope – now his was a consummate skill! He penned his contempt for his contemporaries with such descriptive pearlers as, “A brain of feathers, and a heart of lead” (from The Dunciad). Mind you, Pope’s literary heir, the 19th century Irish writer Oscar Wilde gave Pope his due with this classic: “There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.” (Boom boom!)

The ultimate example of the art in my view, however, has to be Lear’s assessment of his daughter in Shakespeare’s majestic tragedy, King Lear. By way of background, the king has divested himself of all his wealth and property in favour of two of his children in the expectation they will provide for him. Alas, they prove merciless and Lear ends up not even on the first of Maslow’s hierarchical rungs and bereft of all: food and shelter; safety and security; family and friends; self-respect, and moral purpose. His riposte to his stone-hearted daughter is extraordinarily evocative:

“O Goneril, You are not worth the dust which the rude wind Blows in your face”.

Now there’s an insult! At once pitiable and pitying, it’s Lear’s attempt to meet indignity with dignity. Fortunately rarely required, and probably unworthily, I do recall one or two times when Lear’s words have echoed and acted as my own silent salve – naturally with my thinking rather than voicing his appraisal!

On reflection, perhaps it’s that the power of the words helps restore one’s lack of power in the circumstances?  Presumably insults have something to do with power relations and attempts to redress a perceived imbalance – feelings of insecurity, of self-doubt, of being wronged, of helplessness, of needing to deflect attention or sometimes misguided attempts at humour. Clearly however, few of us can conjure up the artistry of a Pope, a Wilde or a Shakespeare to do so. So much better really to attend to more of Pope: “To err is human, to forgive, divine” – although perhaps for most of us mere mortals, another work in progress.


3 responses to “The Art of Insult

  1. One of my personal favourites from that master of the political insult “a shiver looking for a spine to run up”. paul Keating at his best.

  2. Hi Pam
    I wonder if anyone remembers the Shakespearean insult generators that the English Teachers Association used to publish. Hours of fun! Your article hits a more serious point for me though. While the power of an insult might come from the giver, its impact is decided by the receiver. I always found in dealing with both kids and staff members, it was useful to know the motive behind the giver’s words and the impact on the receiver to help find resolution in conflict situations. That didn’t make inappropriate language acceptable but it helped to decide on strategies to calm conflict and hopefully find a way forward.

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