Language is expression. It gives life to our thoughts and brings us together as a species.
But this expression can take on many forms, some perhaps a little less savory than others. Sometimes we use words to express anger or pain, to attack someone else, or as an aggressive defense mechanism. Vulgarisms, profanity, insults and more – these are some of the elements that dig into what it means to express certain degrees of linguistic intensity.
Let’s start with profanity.
Profanity may just be one of the finest examples of the flexibility, ingenuity, and artistic creativity of language. It can be highly expressive – transporting a thought or emotion quickly and simply – or it can be through deliberate, sculpted malice or hilarity. Fear, rage, annoyance, sudden pain, hatred, or simply as emphasis for something bad or good – we cuss to let it all out. It’s therapeutic, empowering, and just plain satisfying.
Insults, on the other hand, are typically words, deeds or implications that cause offense to a person or group of people, be they through embarrassment, harm to something they hold especially dear, or the exploitation of painful memories or circumstances, among others. With this in mind, we quickly realize that the nature of an insult is generally subjective.
Insults and profanity are profoundly different and are in no way mutually exclusive. You can insult someone using the prettiest, most socially acceptable language around. “Special snowflake” is a common mild insult these days that can get under the skin, but that contains no profanity – quite the opposite, really. Unless you’re prone to becoming stuck under avalanches, snowflakes are cool and interesting and pretty and harmless. Likewise, you can shout four letter expletives to the sky out of rage, fear, or even joy, without them really being insulting to anyone.
When I attempt to say unequivocally that I have the absolute best insults in history, you know I’m being subjective, too, right? Of course you do. You also wouldn’t have clicked the link if the title said “My personal opinion about some insults that happened,” so I think the title is warranted. Clickbait is my friend.
After all, the “best” insults are hard to identify and virtually impossible to list since everyone is offended by something different. What is insulting to one person or group may be completely meaningless to another. I know I’m not the greatest writer the world has ever known, but I, like most writers, take it pretty personally when my work is flagrantly attacked in a totally unwarranted way. Every writer does. But many – if not most – non-writers probably don’t care as much.
Still, despite this being my list of the best insults in history, I certainly hope that you are entertained and that you learn something.click me —->1If you’re new here, tap these when you see them. You’ll find snide remarks, further explanations, semi-related but non-essential tangents and other fun stuff. You should click them if you have the time. Mobile users will have to tap the box a 2nd time to close it. Desktop users can click anywhere.
The part where I confess I’m not 100% sure how trigger warnings work, but thought maybe something should be attempted:
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this piece contains a great deal of profanity, but at times it also features plenty of moral ugliness. If you’re easily offended by what is literally intended to be offensive language, this may not the post for you.
Some of the historical and contemporary insults and quotes to follow later in this article feature no shortage of bigotry, lewdness or downright xenophobia. It includes at times antisemitism, flagrant sexism, homophobia and other isms and phobias of that nature that could be bothersome to some readers. Please understand that most of these are written in a historical context and are in no way representative of my own opinions nor tolerance towards others.
I also want to mention that “historical context” should not be misconstrued as “I think it’s fine because it was okay back then so whatever”. Reprehensible content is reprehensible no matter the era in which it was spoken, people were just less cognizant, or less caring, of the impact they had on others. I think that despite all of this, the historical context is important and this piece is definitely meant to be more than just a field guide to being an asshole.
Lastly – and I cannot emphasize this enough – this article is not intended to encourage you to go around being a horrible person. Generally, if you can avoid slinging insults at people, the world becomes a slightly better place, and that should be the goal, right?
Categorizing the profane
It’s right there in the 4th Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.“
Basically, God is sensitive, so don’t be a jerk or you’ll be sent to bed early without any supper.2Bed means Hell.
But what does that actually mean?
Etymologically, profanity usually refers to foul language – profane language – that would have been considered sacrilegious, blasphemous, or otherwise disrespectful towards that which is holy. The root word, profane, has its origins in the Latin profanare and profanus, which mean to desecrate or violate, and simply to “be unholy” or “unconsecrated.”
As time went by and the devout continued to complain about what was and was not “profane”, a bunch of other unsavory terms and bodily secretions gradually joined the list of words God hated.
While not as common today, you will still occasionally hear people say things like “don’t take Jesus’ name in vain!” when you say something like “Jesus Christ!” after stubbing your toe, or “Oh my fucking God” when they misspell Aschleigh’s annoying name on the coffee sleeve at Starbucks.
In fact – it’s actually pretty cool to realize that we still make these exclamations: “Oh my God!, Jesus Christ! Mein Gott!, ¡Dios mio!”, etc. with the subconscious intention of being profane.
When you say “Jesus fucking Christ” after almost getting hit by a clown on a motorcycle, you’re not (I presume) intentionally trying to insult anyone’s religion. Even if you don’t believe, you’re essentially exclaiming that this clown and his motorcycling madness are unholy and go against all of which is holy – which is undeniably true.
Similarly, other terms for profanity, such as “cursing” or “swearing”, can also clearly be seen to have religious origins. We have long said that we swear to God or by God – this can be either good or bad, but the use of the word implies a religious connection. Curses, magic, hexes, etc, have traditionally been things that Christianity and other religions have shunned, so associating that with which the Church does not agree is a good way to keep a lid on things, so to speak.
3Fun fact: the word “cuss” is just vulgar shorthand for “curse.” It appeared somewhere in the 19th century because people were too lazy to pronounce the letter R. True story.
So, then why is “profanity” still a thing?
While there are still people out there who don’t like it when you take the Lord’s name in vain, many of them aren’t necessarily offended by your everyday “bad words”.
The very definition of profanity is no longer really what it was, so if you stop and think about it for a few seconds, it sort of starts to become weird that we’re bothered by these words at all. An insult is meant to degrade, remind, or otherwise hurt, but profanity in and of itself is pretty benign, right? Sticks and stones – you know how it goes.
If that’s the case, why do people care? Why am I even writing about it at all? Why do we even call it profanity these days?
Michael Stevens from Vsauce, one of my favorite YouTube science channels, explains it in a more entertaining and probably clearer way than I ever could, because somehow everyone else’s blog or podcast or website or whatever is better than mine:
I love profanity
When I was little, my parents would occasionally utter some sort of curse word. Maybe my mother was being cut off in traffic by someone trying to get to McDonalds before their breakfast menu ended. 4All right kiddies, this was years before they made it available all day long. It used to end at 10:00 AM. Maybe my father remembered two days into a 3 week trip that we left the milk in the fridge.
Maybe they just stepped on LEGOs.
Regardless of the reason, whenever they’d slip up and blurt out some vulgarity or other, I’d get this tiny rush of amusement before they’d utter some sort of insincere apology we all knew was only said out of a mild sense of socially obligatory parental responsibility. I’m not so sure most people really think swearing in front of children matters one way or another, but according to the unwritten laws of society, it’s still taboo.
And of course, that taboo is why they’d follow it up with the ages-old idiom: “pardon my French”.
I’m not sure why everyone assumes that French is an especially snappy language, or why exactly we say “pardon my French”, but that’s just how the idiom goes.
Or is it….
Sometimes these boxes appear clipped at the end to some readers. Reloading the page usually fixes it. If it doesn’t, that sucks, but it’s not essential to the overall piece.
As an elementary student, then as a middle school student, much like you probably did, I began peppering my speech with an increasing number of spicy choice words, gradually pushing the limits of what my parents or teachers would find acceptable. Around about the same time that we started reading classic literature and words started appearing in the texts, English teachers in particular started to become a little more lenient. As each year went by my parents would slowly stop reprimanding the occasionally muttered “shit” when I stepped one of my three long-forgotten LEGO Darth Vaders, missing in action since 1998, or “forgotten” to do my homework at 9:00 on a Wednesday.
As I aged, it only increased, and I, like most people my age, steadily threw these words around like firefighters throwing candy at an annual small-town parade.
On becoming an adult, I still curse like a sailor, but I’ve learned to be slightly more elegant about it, sometimes. However, one thing remains true – there’s a big difference between cursing because you stepped on sharp toys or locked your keys in your car, and hurling a verbmissile in someone’s direction with the direct intention of hurting them or pissing them off.
While I don’t outwardly condone going around telling yo’ mama jokes to every impatient old lady who cuts in front of you in the checkout line5Besides, her mama is dead, so that’s a low blow., it’s still fun to update your arsenal on occasion and entertain yourself with the possibilities – even if you’d never use them. Besides, this way you know what all the kids are saying these days.
Perhaps it sounds a little bit paradoxical, but some degree of profanity sets me at ease. When I’m around new people I feel like I have to hold back until the first “shit” flies. Then it’s open season. I prefer it this way. It’s more human, more familiar, and more casual. I recently started a new job, and at the first team meeting I was pretty tense, as I think most people are at new jobs. The moment one (and then a second and third) colleague started cussing up a storm casually, I felt right at ease.
There’s a certain uncomfortably heavy load of propriety that we carry with us when meeting new people, and as soon as the cussing starts, part of that weight sheds itself and falls away, and we can begin to be ourselves again.
My favorite is when someone swears while conducting a job interview – sets me at ease right off the bat and makes me feel like I can actually speak freely, even if I still keep my own profanity in check. Simply knowing that my potential employer is as comfortable speaking that way to me as I am with them is reassuring. They become human.
People who never swear, on the other hand, sometimes strike as very odd. It feels like there’s some sort of barrier between us that will persist until they’re willing to punch a hole through it, and I worry about being judged as some sort of uncouth hooligan. I don’t like having to step carefully around people I see often or am trying to bond with – nobody does.
The best insult is not always the one that is the most crass or profane, but instead one that plays the room. Few things are more insulting than a clever, snide remark that catalyzes the amusement of those around you during an altercation. Indeed, as far as I’m concerned, the best insults tend to be little more than targeted stand-up comedy.
As I said before, it’s important for us to note that there’s a huge difference between profanity and insults – though the two make excellent bedfellows. The latter are generally intentional attacks on a person, group or other thing. They are designed to hurt, humiliate, anger or otherwise degrade, and that’s not so cool, but again – there’s a time and a place for all things and that place is here and that time is now.
Some of the best insults don’t contain any profanity. They push all of the most sensitive buttons, rely on word-play, and are more about personal barbs than outright vulgarities – though sometimes profanity makes for a powerful and amusing garnish.
Here are some of my favorite insults, both famous and obscure, profane and mild, that have been hurled between angry mouths throughout history. Some of them are slightly suspect thanks to the age of their speakers and dodgy historical references, but whether they all happened 100% as is claimed or not, someone, somewhere still had to come up with them, and they’re still entertaining.
So I say it still counts.
Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks
The best bit of hate mail ever, the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks is actually the title of a famous painting showing the raucous drafting of a semi-legendary letter sent as a bold response to a demand for military surrender.
The mid and late 17th century wasn’t era for anyone living in Eastern Europe, the Pontic Steppe, or the planet Earth, really. It was a bad few centuries for pretty much everyone. Everyone was at war with everyone else. Everyone died of war, disease, childbirth, or starvation. Life was generally just not fun at all.
Allegedly, in 1676, when the Ottoman Empire, which had occupied land west of the Dnieper River in what is now Ukraine, was busy violently expanding its already massive borders, they ended up losing a battle to the Zaporozhian Cossacks who lived “across the river”.
Despite his loss, the exceedingly ballsy Ottoman sultan Mehmet IV had a letter sent to the Cossacks demanding their unconditional surrender and subjugation:
Well, somebody thinks rather highly of himself.
In any case, the Zaporozhians weren’t into surrendering. Having none of it, the Cossacks are said to have written a letter I’m sure none of their grandmothers would have approved of. Cossack military leader Ivan Sirko, the guy with the pipe in the painting below, artfully sat down with his buddies and a few casks of vodka, a quill and got to work, replying:
Sick burn, bro.
Unfortunately, it is not 100% conclusive that this reply actually was penned by Ivan Sirko, or written by the Zaporozhian Host at all. The original, if there was one, has not been found. The letter we have was written down in the 18th century. Towards the end of the 19th century, Russian painter Ilya Repin fell in love with this letter, as I now have, and created the painting below.7Fun fact: Whether you had actually heard of this guy until now or not, Ivan Sirko was a real man and is still a really big deal in Ukraine, where he is considered a folk hero of near-mythic proportions. Legend has it that he could shapeshift into wild animals and used magic to outsmart his foes.
But regardless of whether or not the story behind it is true, someone wrote it, and it’s still scathing.
Needless to say, the war didn’t end that day.
Mark Twain on Jane Austen
If ever a writer despised another writer, Mark Twain would be that first writer. The second would be Jane Austen.
One of the most famous authors in United States history and a man who never, ever looks happy with having his picture taken, Mark Twain, the author of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, among many others, led a long and colorful life filled with adventure, fame and fortune.8Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. This is not important information and you will have forgotten it by the end of this article. Another one of his pen names was Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, which you might not forget. He held many particularly poignant views, including those on imperialism, the dominion of the rapidly growing United States of America, as well as on politics and civil rights – being an ardent abolitionist. So he wasn’t a total asshole.
Mark Twain has become one of the Internet’s darling quote factories, posthumously churning out made-up wisdom he likely never said. This is a common trend ignorantly applied to old, dead white men9And Maya Angelou represented in black and white photos with crazy white hair, a trend he shares with Einstein and Lincoln.
However, the Internet aside, many of his actual quotes are pretty cool and [probably] real. Twain was, and remains, well known for his comedic and occasionally fiery wit. Certainly not afraid to apply a fair degree of vitriol to those he thought to be poor wordsmiths – Twain had no issue with most-mercilessly laying into his contemporaries and forebears alike.
Numbered among Twain’s list of undesirables were famous names such as James Fenimore Cooper and Robert Louis Stevenson, both also legendary writers of classic English literature.
But above and beyond all, his choice words for Jane Austen are enough to give pause to most people:
In a letter to Rev. Dr. Joseph Twichell10Twichell was Twain’s BFF and a fellow writer who wrote nothing you, or anyone else, has ever heard of. He also had 11 kids. Yikes. dated September 13th, 1898, Mr. Twain said the following:
That got dark fast.
I love this quote because you’re not sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, you are certainly amused, and on the other, probably somewhat taken aback. I guess that’s part of what makes an insult good, though, right?
But, Twain really had a bone to pick with Austin so obviously there’s more. A few years later, in 1909, he was at it again in a letter to W.D. Howell:
Unfortunately – or maybe fortunately by the sound of it – Austen died nearly 20 years before Twain was born, so she never had a chance to make a retort.
You can decide for yourself whether you consider Twain’s quotes to be “insults” in the conventional sense. I can see why you may not. However, I’d like to think that if you suggest that a writer’s work is so bad that they should be desecrated, posthumously dismembered, or brutally murdered for it, it probably constitutes an insult.
The best political insults
Politics is an inherently messy reality, but despite what your Libertarian cousin Dave says, its essential to a functioning society and it does matter. Politics touch on nearly every single level of life, and not caring about them isn’t something a responsible adult should do.
But, on the other hand, that’s not what we’re here to discuss, and while the messiness of politics raises tensions, causes enormous rifts in morality and compassion between opposing idealists, it manages to spawn some of the most eloquent, entertaining insults ever.
Political insults are some of the most delicious to hear or read because political discourse is supposed to maintain a certain level of civility. Clearly, it doesn’t always, but in most cases politicians don’t freak out and assault each other on the floor of Parliament or Congress.11It does happen, though. In 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks attacked Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the US House of Representatives. They were arguing over the abolition of slavery. Here’s the US Senate’s official take on it. However, at the end of the day, politicians are just people and just like the rest of us, they like to throw around insults and profanity too.
Here are a couple of my favorites:
Richard Nixon and Justin Trudeau’s Dad
In light of the relatively recent tensions between the leaders of the United States and Canada – when US President Donald Trump referred to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as weak willed and meek – I am reminded of a similar exchange between Canada and the US that took place during the administrations of Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father and former PM), and President Richard Nixon.12The Watergate guy, for my foreign readers who don’t know why this guy is famous, or why they keep mentioning him in in the news in reference to a certain current president who has become the inspiration for numerous other insults and profanities.
In 1971, Nixon, while discussing various Cold War related mumbo-jumbo, including stuff about Russia’s Premier Leonid Brezhnev, with then Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, and Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger, is reported to have referred to the senior Trudeau as “an asshole”.
As is the nature of such international word booboos, the White House has only been releasing bits and pieces of the Nixon Administration’s conversations and dealings over the past 20 or so years. However, it came to light recently, confirmed by both the White House, and Pierre Trudeau’s 1993 memoir, that this quote is indeed true.
When he learned of this exchange, the Canadian prime minister simply replied:
Simple, elegant, not especially stately, but certainly better than the intergovernmental insults we see in 2020. No, it doesn’t make your toes curl, but there’s something smooth about it.
It is generally rare in modern politics – or at least it was until 2017 – that a national leader would throw shade at another so directly and brazenly. This may not sound like the inflammatory remark you were expecting on a list like this, but nonetheless, I like it.
Maybe I just think Nixon sucked.
Tragically for him, as history would have it, Nixon certainly never did redeem himself and rise to the ranks of “better people”.
Unsurprisingly, Dick van Dick earned himself more than one verbal sparring partner during his tenure as Asshole in Chief. Famed journalist James Reston, who wrote frequently for the New York Times during his 50 year tenure also once said of Nixon:
For the most part, nobody has really let Nixon off the hook for the failed hocus-pocus he attempted to pull during his years in office, and I wouldn’t expect them to any time soon. This is probably because until right about now, no sitting president has come quite this close to committing crimes against the state.
Winston Churchill to Lady Nancy Astor
Among the United Kingdom’s most famous and beloved prime ministers, Winston Churchill had the mixed fortune of being a relatively charismatic and moderately capable politician with his heart more or less in the right place, exactly when the world was busy setting the bar desperately low.13The bar wasn’t very high when the only real requirement for “having your heart in the right place” was essentially not gassing an entire ethnic group. He is well known because of his tenure as one of the “Big Three”, along with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin during the World War II era. He oversaw a nation during one of the biggest military conflicts the world has ever known and his side ultimately won, so of course he’s famous.
Despite his accomplishments and acclaim, Mr. Churchill, while still considered a legendary British figure, was also quite well known for being a bit of a dick.14And for his love of boozin’ it up, but when your city is being bombed to shit I guess there are worse ways to pass the time in the dark. His sharp wit and inability to hold his tongue, sometimes in sensitive situations, has endeared him to many. However, not all of his contemporaries thought as much.
Lady Nancy Astor, American born and the first female member of British Parliament, was not his biggest fan, nor he hers – a fact he made abundantly clear on more than one occasion.
She is reputed to have once expressed her sentiment with the line:
To which he rather snarkily replied:
This was hardly the only of their combatant exchanges. Churchill is alleged to have fired other caustic verbal pyrotechnics with regards to her appearance, repeatedly calling her ugly or unworthy of the attention of men. Offensiveness aside, I can’t help but feel like one of the 20th century’s more capable orators could have come up with something better than “ur uggles!”
Some additional barbs flung between the two included one of Lady Astor’s own that I think deserves a brief round of applause.
Winston was clearly not a fan of Nancy’s election to Parliament, and like the swamp ape he was, he had no issues baring his sexism for all to see, once exclaiming:
When compared to the linguistic Zeitgeist we experience on a daily basis today in 2019, the interactions between Churchill and Astor seem somewhat tame or demure – they feel far less blunt than we typically see in this day and age.15Personal grievance: when people talk about “how much more civilized people were” during a given point in history. They were no more civilized then than we are today, and they probably had their own commentary on the good ol’ days of 1890. The Victorians probably lamented the loss of the 1840s, and so on into antiquity. Life was in almost no way better “back then”. While we now live in an era in which calling your head of state a shit-gobbling fuckwhistle on national television is approaching the norm, we must bear in mind that the words exchanged between public individuals were no less demeaning or at times vulgar, they simply take on a dated note.
That and nobody was around to record things. I’m quite certain they get much worse.
Boris Johnson on Turkish President Erdoğan
And yeah, they do get much worse:
To set the stage, this particularly delightful story begins with that famous debacle in 2016 in which German satirist Jan Böhmermann wrote a not-so-friendly joke/poem about sitting Turkish dictator president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
This poem sparked outrage when the president attempted to sue Böhmermann for the insult. It became complicated because apparently Germany still had an obscure law on its books from centuries gone by criminalizing the insulting of foreign heads of state. Apparently they just forgot it was there because most reasonable world leaders don’t (historically, at least) go full toddler and start suing foreign nationals when their feelers are hurt.16As someone from the US, a lot of mainland Europe has what I feel are inane speech laws regarding public insults. Basically, they’re illegal. It’s heinous to me, but Europeans, for the most part, seem to think of themselves as more civilized for having these laws, which, of course, bothers me more.
They ultimately threw out the case, but it really was a whole thing, actually nicknamed the Böhmermann Affair or Erdogate.
It wasn’t actually a very good insult so it doesn’t get to be here. This part is about Boris.
Former conservative London mayor, foreign secretary and current British prime minister, Boris Johnson, himself the lovechild of an upturned mop and a racist figgy pudding, entered a poetry contest designed to further mock the Turkish president as a retort to his ridiculous lawsuit with a 1,000 pound prize, and won with this wonder of a rhyme:
All personal feelings for Boris Johnson aside, I will give full credit where credit is due. He deserves that prize money.
However, as good as I think that was, it is made all the sweeter by the fact that four months later, Johnson would find himself playing diplomat in Turkey where things got a little, uh, tense.
A few extra political rivalries
From the “good people on both sides” serial dunce currently sitting atop the Orange Throne in DC to the leaf-headed nincompoops of the Roman Empire, political insults are the result of what are often raw human exchanges regarding topics of the most severe kind. Politicians such as Johnson, Churchill and Astor are hardly the limits. They may not even be as good as some of these:
John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich to John Wilkes, a political activist:
US President Lyndon Johnson on President Gerald Ford:
Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating on John Howard:
Johnathan Aitken on Margaret Thatcher:
I found those here. There are a bunch more political barbs on that site, I just didn’t like them as much.
There are countless more political rivalries throughout history that have resulted in some colorful language being tossed about. Many of the profanity and slang terms we use to express our sentiments towards many current world leaders – you know who I’m talking about – have been increasingly creative and vehement. This has been fueled by the collective minds of Twitter and other social media platforms, which for all of their problems have been a spectacular breeding ground for political insults and stabs of every kind.
Insults as a performance art
If we can agree that part of what makes a great insult great is its delivery and the impact is has on the participants’ surroundings rather than simply on the opponent, we can quickly see why insults could be seen as something of a performance act and their makers actors.
Perhaps it’s some strange remnant of our morbid fascination with watching death and violence such as gladiatorial combat or every movie with Bruce Willis in it. Perhaps we associate ourselves with one party or the other in a verbal duel and enjoy a “sports team effect” of sorts. Regardless, we love hearing others throw insults.
For example: one of the most popular .gifs to hit the Internet is this:
Social media culture now uses this carefully curated and modified gem into any number of variations to suit its needs and not a week goes by that I don’t see it appear in the gratuitous word-vomit of a Facebook comments section. This .gif is actually taken from a series of rap battle parodies that appeared on YouTube in 2011. The performer, who goes by Supa Hot Fire on YouTube, “battles” famous rappers while the guys around him intentionally lose their collective shit, usually in his favor. It’s pretty much the perfect .gif for this article.
You may have seen these too. Sometimes it looks like this:
Having to explain what’s going on here makes it lose a lot of its fun, and I hate fun, so here we go:
The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie
Very much the senile drunken uncle of the modern rap battle – flyting was a bardic tradition with a long and fascinating history.
Rather than being an insult in and of itself, a flyte is the often delightful, poetic exchange of insults produced in bardic verse or as a slanderous, often extremely raunchy poem. Popular among medieval Europeans, particularly in Northern Europe, flyting was conducted for numerous reasons, some of which were more lighthearted than others.
Two or maybe more individuals would face off and exchange pleasantries with one another that could range from braggadocio or simple accusations of cowardice and “thy mother” jokes 18Yo’ mama jokes aren’t even close to being new. to suggestions surrounding one’s extracurricular activities with barnyard animals.
Quite often these bouts of hot air were performed between friends or “friendly rivals” for kicks or as a form of entertainment – like a rap battle – or to settle minor disputes that didn’t quite call for burying a battleaxe in someone’s skull, but that still required some semblance of retort.
In fact, in Scotland during the 15th and 16th centuries, profanity in public was made illegal with a stupidly heavy fine of 20 shillings, which is probably something like $400 USD today. In any case, flyting was still allowed as a weird sort of public performance art.
Sometimes, they were indeed used as a prelude to actual battles or duels, much like a pep rally for loud, half naked, woad-wearing high school students at homecoming.
So, pretty much exactly what an American homecoming pep rally looks like.
Flyting comes from the Old English flītan or flite which means to quarrel and to scold respectively. Instances of it appear in everything from Beowulf to the Nordic sagas and Eddas, and works of Shakespeare such as King Lear.
The best example I’ve found, and arguably among the most famous Scottish flytes, is an absolutely delightful yet simultaneously horribly xenophobic tirade called The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, a late 15th century piece from the early Scottish Renaissance performed by William Dunbar and Walter Kennedie at the court of King James IV of Scotland. It’s really long but well worth a read – especially if you mentally pair it with a rhythm of sorts and picture a modern rap battle.
I’m not kidding, read this small section and tell me this isn’t a rap battle:
They both go on for several more “stanzas” each, both scoring high in their bout of bigotry bingo.
In this case, both Dunbar and Kennedie were professional, well renowned poets19Very specifically, they were makars, which is basically just a Scottish bard., not just drunken louts in a pub arguing over who gets to sexually assault the milkmaid, and their works were likely presented as a performance act before royals and nobility. It is unclear exactly how much animosity they actually bore towards one another, but it is my guess that if such a performance were to be made in front of a king, it probably required frequent recitation and coordination, thus cooperation, which to me hints to at an amiable distaste at worst. This is called into question, though, by the fact that Kennedie and Dunbar were from separate parts of Scotland, specifically Lothian, where they spoke Scots, and Carrick in the South, where Gaelic was the tongue of choice. These two groups have not always been bffs, especially then.
This flyte went on to inspire a string of other Renaissance era flytes over the following couple centuries.
I went looking for a nice YouTube video of flyting but all I found what I assume are extremely unpopular Anglo-Saxon history nerds doing classroom improv, which was boring and not exactly what I was hoping for. If anyone has a great reenactment video, share it in the comments and maybe I’ll add it.
The Dirty Dozens
And while we’re on the note of rap battles and insult dueling games, I thought that a more contemporary example merited mention as well. Fair warning: most of the information about this activity, its origins and history primarily come from the accounts of white people. Make of that what you will.
The Dozens is an insult game most frequently played in the African American community in the United States among the young; teens, young adults, but not exclusively. It consists of two duelists, usually male, insulting each other in turn. Their insults gradually escalate from mild-ish to outlandish until one or the other either breaks and takes something too seriously and becomes offended, demonstrating some sort of “weakness”, or runs out of responses.
These insults individually are referred to as “snaps”.
Oh snap! Now it all makes sense.
These snaps can be anything from dirty jokes about opponents’ mothers, comments on their sexual preferences, or cleaner and focus around stupidity or weaknesses of another kind. The Dozens can be set to rhyme, in which case it becomes extremely similar to a rap battle.
Point in case:
Sometimes, these exchanges can come simply in the form of short one-liners. Yo mama jokes are among the most common and most prolific, having become so widely known and used as to have permeated societies that haven’t even heard of the Dozens.
The origins of The Dozens are obscure and subject to many different theories – most of which, again, come from white researchers20This doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t correct, just that, well, you know… – that trace it back to the Bantu, Kisii, and other East African groups.
A slightly more wholesome form of performance banter, Extempo is an improvised, back-and-forth competitive song that is sung alongside a Calypso melody, a musical style that originated in Trinidad and Tobago and is now common throughout the Caribbean.
During a performance of Extempo, the singers use sarcasm, wit and other insults to make fun of one another’s efforts and persons. They are often aimed at praising their own skills while tearing down those of their opponents. These songs would have originally been performed in French creole, but in recent decades have leaned more heavily towards English.
Unlike the Dozens, Extempo is usually performed on stage and is less geared towards the insults as it is towards performance value for its own sake. Extempo and Calypso are very important cultural elements and each year, Trinidad and Tobago hosts a competition.
Scary banter and the philosopher’s tone
When you think of a philosopher, what do you imagine? Toga-wearing, big-bearded old men sitting around a Greek forum discussing the meaning of life? I suppose to most of us without experience in the field of philosophy, that’s generally what it seems like. We’re taught very little about philosophers and philosophy as a whole unless we specifically study it – and most of us do not.
I tend to think of them as generally peaceful academics sitting around debating what it means to be good or evil; whether there is a God or not.
Apparently, however, those debates aren’t always ideal dinner table conversation. Proof that philosophers can be huge dicks, especially to each other, isn’t hard to come by if you do a little bit of digging.
Søren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher and a bit of a self-righteous git whom you’ve may never have heard of and may likely never hear of again. He focused primarily on lambasting various Christian doctrines and writing mean things about his philosophical contemporaries. I don’t really think he’s especially interesting so I’ll just leave you with this one snort-worthy one-liner:
He died young. Pity.
Also, Nietzsche once referred to Immanuel Kant as:
Then there was that time Noam Chomsky dissed the French.
Not one Frenchman in particular, just all of them, collectively. All the French. It wasn’t funny though, just kind of mean and unnecessary.21I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Chomsky say something nice about anything though. I know there are going to be some linguists out there right now, reading this while sharpening their pitchforks, I just find the guy profoundly unlikable. I’m sure he’d feel the same way about me, though.
My bad advice
As you can see, some of these insults bear a combination of vulgarity and profound creativity. They’re clever and they’re fun and they often open a window into the use of language among our ancestors – revealing that they’re not all the prim and proper debutantes they’re cast as in movies and books. However, they’re probably not something you can just emulate on a whim in a modern scenario, either. Calling your enemy “the catamite of Tatary” probably won’t really carry the same gravity today as calling them a flaming penguin turd.
Not all insults need be vulgar. There’s something amazingly satisfying about simply calling someone a smidgeonly beefwit.
Crafting the best vulgar insult is like pairing wine and cheese, and in this modern age of hive-mind creativity that is the Internet, we’re coming up with some better ways than ever to spit venom and it is increasingly easy to mix-and-match choice words.
Unfortunately, we’ve all felt the annoyance of having walked away from a dispute of sorts, with it fresh in our minds, then devised the perfect comeback for a situation that has long since passed. You finished your probably unnecessary argument, then realized later with disappointment that referring to your opponent as a sewage-sucking shrimp-dick would have been immensely satisfying. Alas, in the moment, all you could say was “hey, fuck you, man…”
“Next time”, you promise yourself, “next time I’ll remember the thing about the shrimp-dick.”
The key, for me at least, is to pair a vulgarism – perhaps a body part or sex act- with something completely unexpected, like a cactus, a trombone or a llama, and you come away with something that confounds.
It’s entertaining because the absurd part of the insult catches your audience off guard. Nobody is profoundly injured on a personal level by being called the world champion of butt plug licking, but it certainly has some staying power.
The benefits are twofold.
Nobody is expecting to be called a piss-thirsty wank-maggot today, or ever, and the sudden surprise of hearing it turns heads and stacks the deck in your favor. As Flytings, Extempo and the Dozens show, laughter on your side is a great weapon, and laughter against you can be as bad as a punch in the kidney. Thence, you keep the ball in your court by being a little bit weird and unpredictable.
And like the Dozens, the ideal insult is also very much intended to set the bar quite high for your opponent. You’ve taken the upper hand right off the bat and now your opponent is forced to either come beat you up or match your strike with a clever witticism of their own.
Syllable count can be important too. Too short and it’s not as much fun, too long, and you run the risk of overdoing it.
Originally, I was going to create a list or chart with some options for you to keep in mind, but I’ve reluctantly decided against that as it began to take things a little bit too far and my editors were already hesitant to let me be as vulgar as I have been, and talked me out of it despite minor resistance on my part.
I think you get the gist.
The Internet is an asshole
Everyone knows what the Internet has done to our speech, the language we use22I love what the Internet has done for language. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch has a really great book out called “Because Internet” that goes into great detail about this phenomenon in an entertaining way. I highly recommend checking it out!, and more relevant to the topic at hand, the way we use it to tear others down from behind the blue-light glow of a weekend warrior troll. The comments sections of Facebook or YouTube and other social media platforms have become outrageous cesspools of insults and trolling and it has gotten so bad that I’ve become increasingly reluctant to even publish certain content on my own page.
Part of writing anything online is preparing for the possibility of rebukes from all sides, something I know this article is itself going to provoke.
No matter the level of inappropriate four letter words, bodily references or other base bathroom depravity, the best insults in history, in my opinion, at least, are based around wit and snark, and I think that, for the most part, the insults contained in this piece tick many of the right boxes.
These days, it seems to me that most insults are exchanged online on social media in places such as the comments section of any even remotely political post, or in the comments of any YouTube video. In fact, it is commonly said that journalists should never read the comments sections, and some large news outlets such as the BBC, have actually disabled theirs entirely.
I still keep mine on. I prefer being able to have a dialogue with my readers because I’m under the impression that it makes you slightly more likely to want to come back and read stuff again.
In any case – exchanges of foul language happen whether they are in person or online. Sometimes there isn’t even an exchange – it’s just you shouting at the news on TV, making yourself feel better about your armchair slacktivism. Now, the next time you accidentally read a foul Fox News headline, you can be ready with your own historically motivated slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.
If you’d like to learn more slang and profanity from the languages you’re learning, try checking out this series. I wrote a pretty hefty review of it a while back in an article titled “Learning Curse Words in a New Language: D!rty Everyday Slang.” Go take a look.
马克·吐温是美国历史上最著名的作家之一，也是一个从来不为自己的照片而高兴的人，他是《汤姆·索亚历险记》和《哈克贝利·费恩历险记》的作者，也是许多人中的一员，他过着漫长而丰富多彩的生活，充满了冒险，名声和财富。马克·吐温的原名是塞缪尔·朗霍恩·克莱门斯（Samuel Langhorne Clemens），他的名字是塞缪尔·朗霍恩·克莱门斯（Samuel Langhorne Clemens）。这不是重要的信息，到本文结束时您将已经忘记它。他的另一个笔名是托马斯·杰斐逊·斯诺德格拉斯，你可能不会忘记。他持有许多特别尖锐的观点，包括对帝国主义，对迅速发展的美利坚合众国的统治，以及对政治和公民权利的观点----他是一个狂热的废奴主义者。所以他不是个十足的混蛋。
作为背景，这个特别令人愉快的故事要从2016年那场著名的灾难开始。在那场灾难中，德国讽刺作家扬·伯默尔曼（Jan Böhmermann)写了一首不太友好的笑话/诗，主题是土耳其现任独裁者总统雷杰普·塔伊普·埃尔多安（Recep Tayyip Erdog）。
现在，社交媒体文化使用这个精心策划，经过修改的宝石来满足自己的需求，而且我没有一周没有看到它出现在Facebook评论区的无端吐词中。这个。gif实际上取自2011年YouTube上出现的一系列说唱战斗恶搞。这位在YouTube上被称为“Supa Hot Fire”的表演者与著名的说唱歌手“战斗”，而他周围的人却故意失去他们的集体大便，通常是对他有利的。对于本文来说，这几乎是完美的。gif。