Sunday, February 03, 2019

The Art of the Insult by Rose McCormick Brandon

I love a witty put-down. I know, I know, what kind of Christian am I to get my giggles at another’s misfortune. It's an inherited trait (I think). I doubt I can change now. I would have to want to. There lies the problem. So, when I found amongst a heap of used books one titled, The Book of Insults, I had to have it. I put it on the coffee table for my family to enjoy – poor things, they’ve inherited my trait. 
Before people shrieked out their disagreements in sentences laced with cursing and hatred, they used wit to make a point. Writers, like Mark Twain, were especially adept at this. On a woman unacquainted with the conversational pause, Twain wrote:
“The fountains of her great deep were opened up, and she rained the nine parts of speech, forty days and forty nights, metaphorically speaking, and buried us under a desolating deluge of trivial gossip.” (Roughing It)
Mark Twain to a reader: 
Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.
For some writers the dictionary didn't provide enough insulting words. They invented their very own.
Algernon Swinburne’s description of Ralph Waldo Emerson: A gap-toothed and hoary-headed ape . . . who now in his dotage spits and chatters from a dirtier perch of his own finding and fouling: coryphaeus or choragus of his Bulgarian tribe of autocoprophagous baboons.  
Henry Arthur Jones on Bernard Shaw: A freakish homunculus germinated outside lawful procreation. 
The best writers are adept at using a few carefully chosen words:
Oscar Wilde: The English country-gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable.  
Alfred, Lord Tennyson on critic Churton Collins: A louse in the locks of literature.  
Would anyone write this in a note thanking a hostess for dinner?
Edmond de Goncourt: “A very tasty dinner . . . including some grouse whose scented flesh Daudet compared to an old courtesan’s flesh marinated in a bidet.” 
Of an enemy John Sparrow wrote: “If only he’d wash his neck I’d wring it.”
Robert Louis Stevenson: “Poor Matt (Matthew Arnold). He’s gone to heaven, no doubt – but he won’t like God.”
William Faulkner: Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met. 
A writer could almost appreciate these rejection letters:
Samuel Johnson: Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original and the parts that are original are not good.
Oliver Wendell Holmes: You may have genius. The contrary is, of course, probable.
Insults sometimes lead to curses:
An Irish curse: May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of damnation that the Lord himself can’t find you with a telescope. 
An Arab curse: May your left ear wither and fall into your right pocket. 
Politicians used to engage in wit. Now, anyone who does is immediately forced to apologize and those who laugh are maligned. 
Lady Astor (English MP): Winston, if you were my husband I should flavour your coffee with poison. 
Winston Churchill: Madam, if I were your husband, I should drink it. 
Winston Churchill on Neville Chamberlain: He looked at foreign affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe. 
History habitually adores the long-gone and basks in their accomplishments, but Abraham Lincoln was disliked on a par with the present leader of the United States. 
General George McClellan on Lincoln: The President is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon . . . I went to the White House directly after tea where I found “the original Gorilla” about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now!
Abraham Lincoln to General McClellan: If you don’t want to use the army I should like to borrow it for a while. 
Even Canadian politicians used to be witty.
John Langton on William Lyon Mackenzie: He is a little red-haired man about five feet nothing and extremely like a baboon.
William Lyon Mackenzie on Sir Peregrine Maitland: He is one of the lilies of the field; he toils not, neither does he spin. 
Sir John A. MacDonald in an election speech: I know enough to know that you would rather have John A. drunk than George Brown sober.
Sir John A. on Donald Smith: I could lick that man Smith quicker than hell could fizzle a feather.
John Diefenbaker on Jean Lesage: He is the only person I know who can strut sitting down.
Pierre Trudeau: The honourable member disagrees. I can hear him shaking his head. 
Agnes McPhail was asked by a man, “Don’t you wish you were a man?” to which she replied, “Yes. Don’t you?”
Stephen Harper: People stop me on the street all the time and ask me, "What’s the secret of your charisma?" Well, the secret is to surround yourself with people who have even less … why do you think I was so anxious to make a deal with Joe Clark? 
Stephen Harper: I’m sure the NHL lockout is on a lot of your minds … but if bored Canadians want to watch pampered millionaires who only work in 45 second shifts they can sneak into the Senate.
Some of the best of Canadian political wit came from John Crosbie. Newfoundlanders possess a clever humour admired by all and Crosbie is a good example.
John Crosbie, Lieutenant-Governor, Nfld-Labrador 2011: This fellow said, ‘I was so depressed last night thinking about the economy, wars, jobs, my savings, social security, retirement funds, etc., I called a suicide hotline and got a call centre in Pakistan. When I told them I was suicidal, they got all excited and asked if I could drive a truck,’” 
Like all wits of the twenty-first century Crosbie was forced to issue an apology. 
When Crosbie stood to speak in Parliament, MPs on both sides of the aisle knew they could depend on him for a zinger or two. A good laugh eases the weight of heavy arguments. Crosbie nicknamed a quartet of female MPs, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. One of them, Sheila Copps, he individually labelled “Shrieky Sheila.” Oh for the days when everyone wasn't over-anxious to play the victim. 
Profuse, apologies to those who found any or all of these quips inappropriate, offensive, or in any way incorrect, unfortunate or unsuitable. I shall try to improve, but I'm not optimistic about it.
Rose McCormick Brandon writes mainly on faith, personal experience and the child immigrants who came to Canada between 1869 an 1939. She's the author of four books, including, One Good Word Makes all the Difference and Promises of Home - Stories of Canada's British Home Children. She has two blogs: Promises of Home and Listening to my Hair Grow. 


Carol Ford said...

Thanks,Rose, for a good laugh. I also like the one line zingers.

Peter Black said...

Well, well, well - this is quite a change from your usual, Rose! You've shown us another side of yourself. Oh, but it's ok! :)
I think that having a capacity to appreciate some quirky humour and sharp-witted zingers may provide good counterpoint to a writer's spending so much time working alone on the keyboard, wrestling with serious matters. ~~+~~

Rose McCormick Brandon said...

Thanks Carol. A good laugh is just what the doctor ordered. And Peter, yes, it's good to show the witty side once in a while.

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