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The Art of the Grand Insult

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Where are the people who could craft a stinging insult with wit and a venomous eye twinkle? Has the art of the droll affront been booted out of existence by the profanity-laden social media rant?

There seem to be few people around today who can describe a politician as George Orwell did of then British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin: “... one could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt. He was simply a hole in the air.”

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Literary Insults

You would expect members of the literary trade to be good with the cutting remark. Usually, one insult triggers another and everybody has a lot of fun. Lillian Hellman took matters further.

Novelist and critic Mary McCarthy said of Ms. Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’ ” A lawsuit demanding $2.25 million followed. The battle lasted five years, ruined Mary McCarthy’s health, and only concluded with Lillian Hellman’s death.

Dick Cavett, on whose TV show the original insult was repeated, has written, “McCarthy died five years afterward, having announced that she hadn’t wanted Hellman to die but, rather, to live so that she could see her lose.”

Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman.

Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman.

Norman Mailer seemed always to be spoiling for a fight – literally. He had an actual fight with actor Rip Torn, and, while heavily over-refreshed, took on several people he had invited to a party.

A pugnacious and macho type, Mailer carried on a feud with Gore Vidal whose homosexuality seemed to bother him deeply. In 1971, he got into a verbal scrimmage on The Dick Cavett Show (Yes, him again) with Vidal and writer Janet Flanner. Apparently, Mailer was once again in the bag and the exchange did not work out well for him.

Gore Vidal was also a gifted insult thrower. When told of Truman Capote’s death, a man with whom he had carried on a long feud, he found condolences impossible to summon up and delivered the line that the author had made a good career move.

He said he had a very low view of Ernest Hemmingway: “He was a sort of Field and Stream writer whose gift for publicity propelled him ever forward.”

Or, John Updike: “A nice person, but there’s nothing to be learned from his books.”

Political Insults

Many experience nostalgia for an earlier time because they have been subjected to a daily barrage of insults from a man who claims to “have the best words.” Sadly, his output never scales even the smallest literary height and is usually a simple one-word taunt – loser, liar, wacky, lightweight, etc.

The journalist James Reston wrote of Richard Nixon that “He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them.”

Winston Churchill was one of the greatest exponents of the witty put down. He delivered barbs at his political opponent, socialist Prime Minister Clement Attlee, describing him as “a modest man with much to be modest about.” Churchill also told that “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.”

Earlier, Georges Clemenceau, who led France during the First World War, said wistfully about his British counterpart David Lloyd George: “Oh, if I could piss the way he speaks!”

Clemenceau (left) and Lloyd George (centre) with Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.

Clemenceau (left) and Lloyd George (centre) with Italian Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando.

Earlier still, John Montagu, the Fourth Earl of Sandwich got into a wonderful bit of jousting repartee with the journalist and politician John Wilkes. It was the middle of the 18th century and Montagu told Wilkes “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox.” To which Wilkes responded: “That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.”

Measured against that “Little pencil-neck Adam Schiff” or “James Comey is corrupt, a total sleaze.” Just not in the same league and not enough to keep the mind alive.

Celebrity Jealousies

The rich and famous get used to being pampered and cosseted so it doesn’t take a lot to ruffle their feathers and get a feud going. However, a review of available material suggests that expectations of wit and erudition in the celebrity world need to be kept low.

Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart got upset with actress Gwyneth Paltrow when the latter started up her Goop company in a similar field in 2014. Stewart launched the first salvo with “She’s a movie star. If she were confident in her acting, she wouldn’t be trying to be Martha Stewart.” Paltrow hit back by publishing a recipe for what she called “Jailbird Cake,” referencing Ms. Stewart’s time behind bars for a fraud conviction.

Low-level sniping has continued much to the delight of gossip columnists and tabloid editors.

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A couple of chaps in the rapper trade called Kanye West and Jay-Z used to be pals. Then apparently, there was a falling out that led to West interrupting one of his own performances in California in 2016 to launch into a rant.

He expressed his displeasure with his former friend by saying “Jay Z, call me, bruh. You still ain’t calling me. Jay Z, call me … Jay Z. Hey, don’t send killers at my head, bro. This ain’t the Malcolm X movie. We growing from that moment. Let ‘Ye be ‘Ye.”

This is hardly the sort of sophisticated discourse that will turn up in future compilations of famous quotations. So, let us end with a couple of zingers from the A-list of people who could dish them out.

George Bernard Shaw wrote to Winston Churchill “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend. If you have one.”

To which Churchill replied “Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second … if there is one.”

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Bonus Factoids

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas battled for the senatorial seat in Illinois and engaged in seven debates. In one of them Lincoln said his opponent’s arguments were “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.”

Shakespeare, of course, allowed some of his characters to let fly with verbal attacks. Here, from King Lear, Oswald unwittingly asks Kent “What dost thou know me for?” and he gets an earful: “A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition.”

The Dozens is an Africa-American game in which two people insult each other. It is thought to have originated among slaves.

Sources

  • “Lillian, Mary, and Me.” Dick Cavett, The New Yorker, December 9, 2002.
  • “When Writers Attack.” Jonathan Gottschall, Literary Hub, April 23, 2015.
  • “26 of the Greatest Political Insults in History.” MSN News, September 1, 2015.
  • “The 24 Most Heated Celebrity Feuds of all Time.” Anjelica Oswald, Insider, July 2, 2018.
  • “10 Things You Might not Know about Insults.” Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer, Chicago Tribune, September 1, 2013.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 03, 2019:

Rupert, I have to admit that I admire the art of grand slamming with words which only seem sophisticated. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and will remember the exchange between George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill for a long while.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 28, 2019:

Hi, Rupert, accept my pleasure in reading the story. Every word she wrote the "the" and "and" a lie? That must be terrific in English! I think these days the words of President Trump is a goo! However, many thanks for sharing.