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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Understanding insults

When I was growing up in New Jersey, trading insults was part of making your way through the middle school: “If they put your brain on the edge of a razor blade, it would look like a BB rolling down a four-lane highway.” “His parents used to put a pork chop around his neck to get the dog to play with him.” “If you could teach him to stand still, you could use him for a doorstop.” It was wordplay, imagery, and linguistic sparring—a show for an audience.

Later, I learned about Shakespearean insults (“Thy tongue outvenoms all the worms of Nile”), along with those of Winston Churchill (who described Clement Atlee as “A modest man, who has much to be modest about”), Oscar Wilde (who said of Henry James that he “writes fiction as if it were a painful duty”) and Dorothy Parker (who described the novice actress Katharine Hepburn as running “the gamut of emotions from A to B”). I learned about the tradition of flyting, about the dozens and roasting, and about trash talking in sports.

At the same time, I read in the media about hate speech and scapegoating and, in recent years, about bullying and shaming, and mobbing on the internet. I still appreciate verbal pugilism among equals, but today I’m more aware of the potential harm words can do. In my work on apologies, I’ve seen how sincere and specific apologies can clarify harms, restore respect, and repair relationships. Insults are in many ways the opposite of apologies. An insult is a verbal punch–a characterization of others seeking to injure.

  Directed toward those with less power, an insult is not sparring but a verbal mugging.

Insults can have an aesthetic aspect, evident in the complex verbal dexterity of a Churchill, Wilde or Parker. Insults can also be much more mundane (Teddy Roosevelt saying of President William McKinley that he had “no more backbone than a chocolate éclair”). And they can be simpleminded and crude expressions of hate at the lowest extreme.

Another aspect of insults is their lack of empathy. A verbal attack is often launched from a position of power, or anger. When we call someone a name, whether it is pseudo-intellectual, blockhead, criminal, deplorable, we are privileging our own judgments, biases, and prejudices without regard for the effect of our words on other.

Insults are also matters of perception as well as intention. We inadvertently insult by calling someone the wrong name, implying that they are not worth knowing. We insult with back-handed compliments and condescending remarks: “I wish I could be as laid back about things as you are” (you slacker) or “You really clean up well” (you slob), or questions “Did we do anything important in class today?” (you bore). We can insult by micro-aggression, when we comment or act from stereotypes, for example by asking an Asian-American “Where are you from?” (you’re not from here).

When insults are traded among equals, as in roasts and rituals, intentions are clear, empathy is voluntarily suspended, and aesthetics are pre-eminent. It is sparring with words, a limited performance for an audience and bragging rights. Otherwise though, insults are unequal battles. Directed toward those with less power, an insult is not sparring but a verbal mugging. And when insults are back-handed remarks or micro-aggressions, they are sucker punches.

In a civil society, it’s worth thinking carefully about who we choose to insult and why. And it’s worth remembering something else from middle school: Nobody respects a bully.

Featured image credit: “Arguments” by Artis Pupins. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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