Wednesday, February 26, 2014

English and the Insult

*The following post contains, and indeed dwells considerably upon, profanity*

About a month ago, I had a conversation with a Korean friend of mine concerning the most effective ways to describe a disliked person in English.  Her English was pretty good, and she already had quite a handle on the basics of swearing, letting loose a series of fucks and bastards with righteous fury.  But she seemed dissatisfied with the limitations of English cursing, feeling that these words didn't really get at the heart of why the object of her ire was so detestable.  My helpful suggestions of motherfucker, asshole, and son of a bitch served only to illustrate her point.  American English at least does not have a very extensive list of devastating curses.

Recently, I too have had reason to consider the most effective way to utterly disparage the character of another human being in my native tongue.  It's not surprising really; we've all been in that sort of mood, and it's not really important to know who we're talking about today or what they've done to deserve such infamous treatment.  Trust me when I say that the bastard has earned the abuse.

As a matter of principle, I want to avoid the use of insulting language that derives its impact from racial, sexual, or gender identity, or from mental or physical disability.  I think we're all better than that.  A truly effective, devastating insult should bear on something worthy of insulting: namely, a person's lack of integrity.  I have taken the liberty to compile a short list of terms (with definitions) that I think should be considered more often by Americans in the throes of passionate rage:

Scoundrel: a dishonest or unscrupulous person.
Blackguard: a person, particularly a man, who behaves in a dishonorable or contemptible way.
Heel: an inconsiderate or untrustworthy person.
Punk: someone worthless or unimportant; a hoodlum.
Scum: a low, worthless, or evil person.
Miscreant: a vicious or depraved person.
Reprobate: a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person.
Dastard: a mean, sneaking coward.

If you ask me, that's a nasty list!  There aren't many people I know who would enjoy being called any of these things.  But they don't really have the weight you'd expect from something as serious as an insult.  They certainly don't feel like real curses, the sort of thing that could get you sent to the principal's office, or thrown out of an especially genteel book club (maybe "scum," but not the rest).  In fact, words like "miscreant" almost sound like the opposite of an insult, the sort of thing an upper class person with delicate sensibilities might say to avoid giving offense.  That's not what I want to do here.  I want to be very offensive.

One common principle of insults seems to be that, in order to truly communicate that someone is detestable, you can't just say that they are.  You have to go beyond saying what they are and make what they are sound like something that no one will ever love, possibly because they are contaminated with some sort of contagious, weaponized germ.

There are some exceptions to this principle.  Calling someone something as simple as coward, thief, or liar can provoke a fistfight under the right conditions.  If the person I wish to insult is a liar (and they are), then it seems like I have a built-in advantage to my quest to be offensive.  The problem is, there aren't many words in English that mean "liar" but can't be spoken in polite company.  Oath breaker?  Dissembler?  Fabulist?  Deceiver?  Maybe if you throw in a good strong "fucking" to carry the load.

Nobody wants to sound unhip while delivering an insult: doing so insults oneself by implication.  I think that's why our pool of insults is so conservative, limited to a few old standbys and some unjust digs at marginalized groups.  Nobody wants to go out on a limb by committing to a word like miscreant if it will be perceived as dated or wimpy.  That's also why nobody avails themselves of classic Shakespearean skewers like "umuzzled tardy-gaited barnacle" or "fobbing whoreson coxcomb."  They may be thoroughly rude, but they're adventurous and untested.  Fucking asshole may be muted, but everyone gets the idea right away.

There is one school of insults in English that remains creative: the scatological insult.  A scatological insult does not really aim to describe its target; rather, it aims to disturb everyone in hearing range with unpleasant images, and the possibilities are positively unbounded.  If a more character-derived insult is something of a dueling sword, then a scatological insult is like some kind of radiological bomb.  My target may be a despicable heel, but I can do more damage to the surrounding environment if I call them a dribbling shitstain.  And sometimes, that's a fine thing to do.

In this case, I think it better to forgo the use of toilet imagery and stick with the descriptive, character-based insult.  In fact, I've decided to go with scoundrel, a word that doesn't get nearly enough serious use in this day and age.  Make no mistake, there are scoundrels among us.  They should be disparaged and degraded, but most of all they should be recognized for what they truly are.

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