A subtle insult is worth its weight in stones

The time is ripe for this scathing art form to make a comeback

October 15, 2003 Edition -1

James Clarke

That fascinating free website, AWAD (A word a Day) compiled by Anu Garg of Cleveland, Ohio, was on to expletives and insults recently.

It came up with the word "facinorous". If I called you a facinorous person would you feel insulted? Never.

You would glow all day until you got home and grabbed your dictionary. Even then you might not find the word.

I looked in my favourite dictionary, Collins, and it wasn't there but I found it in the Shorter Oxford (the first time the former has let me down in years).

It means "extremely wicked" and it was popular in the 17th century.

To my mind "facinorous" is not an expletive's backside. It has but one advantage - I believe a good insult should not immediately be perceived.

The receiver should only realise some time afterwards that he was insulted.

Anu dedicated a week of his "programme" to insults. He was prompted by Kaylene Armstrong, a school teacher, who had mentioned how unimaginative young people are these days when they insult one another.

They say, "I will kick your ass" - a typical American insult. She feels they should rather say something like say, "I'm going to defenestrate you!"

Middle class Americans are a bit coy with insults.

Saying, "You SOB" (son-of-a-bitch), is a mouth-washing offence in the US. As bad as saying "lavatory".

Americans NEVER use that word. They have to say, "May I use your bathroom?"

My rejoinder would be, "Certainly, hang on I'll get you a bathrobe, and please use the towel with 'Hers' on it."

A good quality insult must be subtle and, preferably, must contain some subtle humour.

A young person might consider the vulgarism "asshole" to be a Premium League insult.

To my mind it's a vulgarism that demeans the insulter rather than the insultee.

The Arabs don't go in for one-word insults. They'd rather say, "Your mother sleeps with camel drivers!"

Or, as one of Anu's fans said, "May the fleas of a thousand camels infest your armpits!" (He then points out that that's probably not an Arab curse because Arabs know that camels don't have fleas.)

Tim Haggerty, responding to the dialogue regarding insults and expletives quoted Freud as saying, "The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilisation."

I agree (Freud will be relieved to hear) and journalist, Finley Peter Dunne said, "Swearing (is) a compromise between running away and fighting."

I prefer insults myself. They need imagination and even intellect. My favourites:

"He's always been unbearable. In fact when he was seven his parents ran away from home."

And: "He's the sort of person Dr Spooner would have referred to as 'shining wit'."

Talking of insults I have received many e-mails telling me that "giving the finger" (that aggressive American sign when the middle finger is thrust skywards) derives from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The writer says the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of any captured English bowmen. Without it the archers would be unable to use their long-range longbows.

This is rubbish. The e-mail theory went on with a lot of other spurious stuff.

It was the insulting "V" sign that was born on the battlefields of France.

The French used to amputate the two fingers (the two digits next to the thumb) of all captured bowmen thus rendering them useless as bowmen. At Agincourt, before doing battle with the French, Henry V's bowmen signalled their opponents by vigorously waving two fingers in the air.

This demonstrated to the French that there were hundreds of archers whose important digits were intact.

The English archers then went on to slaughter 1 500 knights and 4 500 soldiers.

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