The delights of verbal warfare:Fine art of insulting | Sunday Observer

The delights of verbal warfare:Fine art of insulting

Saying that you’ve never once cursed your boss means, you’re a bad liar - anyone who has worked before you, would have done that, openly or silently. We all want to insult our bosses, at some time or other, but is there a subtle way to do so? Of course, there are many ways, you just have to choose one, or all.

From time immemorial we have relished the delights of verbal warfare (insulting each other diplomatically). It is a paradox of our own wi-fi age that the enjoyment of a clever insult has never been higher. Having lost the interest in using language with precision and imagination, we hide our real thoughts behind fuzzy words - but, secretly admire those who have the courage to say aloud, what we ourselves dare only think.

Over the years, there have been many who called a spade a spade, with imagination, wit and style. If this modest selection can both, amuse and inspire you to a more creative use of insult, I have served my ultimate purpose.

Arts and literature

In the field of arts, revilement was often the specialization of painters, authors, poets and composers. “Wagner has beautiful moments but awful quarter hours,” wrote Gioacchino Rossini (Italian composer remembered for his operas) about Richard Wagner (German composer of operas and inventor of the musical drama.) Mark Twain described a painting by William Turner (English Romanticist landscape painter) - as, “A tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes”.

In the literary world, the going often became particularly heavy: “The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him,” said Thomas Macaulay (English historian noted for his history of England) on Socrates.

Macaulay was also a non-stop talker who became the target of friends and foes, alike. Florence Nightingale had this to say about him: “His conversation was a procession of one.”

Rev. Sydney Smith was an English wit, writer and Anglican cleric in the 18th century.

He was quite a witty exponent of the pithy phrase, even at his own expense: “When I am in the pulpit, I have the pleasure of seeing my audience nod approval of what I preach, even while they sleep.”

Thomas Carlyle was a Scottish philosopher, satirical writer, essayist, historian and teacher. Not unexpectedly, Carlyle was himself the subject of many barbs - this from Samuel Butler - an unorthodox English author of a variety of works. He said, “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry each other and so make only two people miserable instead of four.”

Mark Twain could be sarcastic, too, and delighted audiences with comments such as: “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can. Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it? When some men discharge an obligation, you can hear the report for miles around”.

Samuel Johnson, English writer and lexicographer had sarcasm in his writings. Here are two instances.

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good”. Samuel Johnson.

“From the moment, I picked your article up, until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it.”


Women and their rights and the state of marriage have garnered a fair share of hostility over the centuries: “She never was really charming until she died,” said Terence K, playwright of the Roman Republic.

“God created Adam master and lord of all living creatures, but Eve spoiled it all,” said Martin Luther.

“I have always thought that every woman should marry, but no man should”, Benjamin Disraeli commented.

Women who aspired to anything other than marriage have had such insults as these heaped on them: From “Thomas Beecham, “There are no women composers, never have been, and possibly never will be”. G. K. Chesterton added, “Twenty million young women rose to their feet with the cry - We will not be dictated to - and promptly became stenographers”.


It may be that direct confrontation brings as much opportunity as any form of insult:

Lady Astor: “Winston, if you were my husband, I should flavour your coffee with poison.”

Churchill: “Madam, If I were your husband, I should drink it.”

Bessie Braddock, M.P: “Winston, you’re drunk”.

Churchill: “Bessie, you are ugly, and tomorrow morning I’ll be sober but you’ll still be ugly.”

When the venomous US Congressman John Randolph met Henry Clay, another US Congressman on a narrow sidewalk in Washington, this brief conversation passed between them:

Clay: “I, sir, do not step aside for a scoundrel”.

Randolph: “On the other hand, I always do”

Nations–no exception

Nations, too, have been subject to denigration, none more so than England:

“I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire: God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark”. Duncan Spaeth, Professor of English – Princeton University.

Or this by Heinrich Heine – German poet and journalist:

“Silence: a conversation with an Englishman.” Or this Turkish proverb:” An Englishman will burn his bed to catch a flea.”

Oscar Wilde remarked: “Of course, America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up”. And Bernard Shaw said: “The 100% American is an Idiot.”

Even Kings

The art of the polished snub had been part and parcel of the diplomat’s trade for many centuries. During the reign of Louis XIV of France, the relations between England and France were anything but cordial. France’s position as the dominant power on the continent was perceived as a threat by other European nations, including England.

One English Diplomat visited King Louis XIV on official business and he was taken on a conducted tour of the royal gallery by the King himself. Louis took particular pleasure in showing his guest a picture of the Crucifixion, which he knew would rub him up the wrong way because it was flanked by two portraits guaranteed to rile any Protestant.

“That on the right is the Pope,’ said the King, ‘And that on the left is myself.’

‘I humbly thank your majesty for this information,’ replied the guest. “For though I often heard that Jesus Christ was crucified between two thieves, I never knew who they were until now.’