How to insult without swearing

Her dress is too white

These days one can’t go for a walk without overhearing one passer-by or another say nasty things about someone.

Most of the insults allude to the target’s Oedipal tendency to corrupt his mother’s morals or else to his propensity for self-gratification. Lest you may consider me a prude, I have nothing against that sort of thing in principle.

Why, on occasion (well, regularly, if I’m being totally honest) I’ve been known to use such words myself, much to Penelope’s chagrin. I defend myself with the technique refined by thieves and murderers: using my tough childhood as an excuse.

I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, I say. And when my wife points out that I grew up a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin, I explain, truthfully, that all of Russia is the wrong side of the tracks. The country is the world’s ultimate bad neighbourhood.

When that excuse is rejected, I invoke ecclesiastical authority, specifically emanating from the first priest of my life. He was appalled when I once took the Lord’s name in vain, adding the middle initial ‘H’ to his name. The servant of God explained to me that was repellent. If you have to swear, he said, use sexual allusions instead. To his credit, the clerical gentleman practised what he preached.

We first met some 30 years ago, at a dinner honouring G.K. Chesterton. The priest wore the insignia of his vocation, and I was suitably cowed sitting next to him. But then he tried the food and commented that “the grub is fucking awful”. The contrast with the clerical collar created such a delicious cognitive dissonance that we became friends for life there and then.

However, it can’t be gainsaid that swearing is the easy way out. All clichés are just that. They are the verbal equivalent of frozen pizzas and other ready-made foods. Anyone who prefers to do his own lexical cooking should be able to avoid lazy shortcuts.

Now, I can’t claim intimate familiarity with every national culture in His Creation. But I am familiar with a few, and it’s France and England (with her colonial offshoots) that excel in the art of the witty putdown.

Even our politicians used to be able to give the celebrated wits of the day a good run for their money (and there I was, forswearing clichés). Today’s lot are occasionally capable of humour, but hardly ever wit. And they may not even be aware of the difference.

But two Tories of the past, Disraeli and Churchill, knew how to handle themselves in verbal jousts.

Thus another member of parliament told Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of a venereal disease”. “That all depends, Sir,” replied Disraeli, “on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

Churchill often chose Labour politicians as bull’s eyes for his wit. Speaking of Stafford Cripps, the leftmost MP at the time, Churchill said: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” (I wish I had used that when writing about Donald Trump. Perhaps I will one day.)

Churchill’s direct competitor, Clement Attlee, often found himself in the great man’s crosshairs. Two examples will suffice: “An empty taxi drew up, and Mr Attlee got out.” And “Mr Attlee is a very modest man, but then again, he has much to be modest about.”

The previous generation of our royal family were no slouches either. For example, Princess Margaret once attended a New York party, where she was asked: “Your Royal Highness, and may I ask, how is the Queen?” “Are you asking about my mother, my sister or my husband?”, replied the princess off the cuff, drawing my retrospective applause.

But it’s Her Majesty Elizabeth II, our late Queen, who often belied her stern image with the odd cutting word. Her stock in trade wasn’t so much a memorable phrase as a subtle understatement. Much of it revolved around the intensifier ‘too’.

Thus she once described Tony Blair as “too presidential”. And after she first met Princess Michael of Kent (née Baroness Marie-Christine Anna Agnes Hedwig Ida von Reibnitz), Her Majesty quipped: “She is a bit too grand for us”.

It was Harry and Meghan who found themselves on the receiving end of some of the last putdowns in the Queen’s life. It’s no secret that Her Majesty wasn’t ecstatic about that match, and she made her feelings known without resorting to any obvious epithets.

Commenting on the wedding ceremony, the Queen said that Meghan’s dress was “too white”. Indeed, the white dress is supposed to symbolise the bride’s virginity or at least first marriage, neither of which Meghan could boast.

On another occasion, appalled at seeing her grandson henpecked by a Hollywood starlet, the Queen said “he is too in love.” That’s so much more poignant than any common phrase alluding to a certain part of a woman’s anatomy used as a whip.

That art of understatement, used in putdowns or otherwise, has been largely lost in England, along with most other admirable traits of the national character. We can safely chalk it up in the loss column, next to dignified stoicism, quiet courage, noble restraint, irrepressible cheerfulness, patriotism assumed, rather than shouted off the rooftops.

Far from being the exclusive property of the high and mighty, such characteristics used to cut across the social hierarchy. Yesterday, for example, I chatted with a wonderful woman who works at our local supermarket.

We always exchange pleasantries, and she is never short of a smile and a joke. When I told her a few years ago that my wife was ill, she gave me a bunch of flowers for her, and refused to accept payment. Since then she has always asked after Penelope, and I’ve dutifully kept her updated.

She’ll be retiring in April, she said yesterday, so now she’ll have time to do things she has always wanted to do. What, going on a cruise? I asked. No, working at the homeless shelter next door, replied my supermarket friend. She then joked about her career, with not a touch of bitterness or rancour anywhere.

When I look at her young co-workers, sporting tattoos, sullen expressions and telling the world with every gesture that they are hard done by, I can’t think of anything funny or witty to say. But then I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.

3 thoughts on “How to insult without swearing”

  1. I must confess, though I rarely use the Lord’s name in vain, preferring the conventional instruction to a man to perform such and such a sexual act with his or her family member, etc., there is something quite ludicrous and comical in hearing a man, weak fragile creature that is, horridly insulting the most omnipotent being because he stubbed his toe, missed the train, forgot his umbrella, etc…

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