Humour: Offensively yours
Reading an online argument recently, I chanced upon a choicest slur. Someone called an ideological adversary a “giant bottle of expired Gelusil”. It had a strange effect on me. What a perfectly beautiful insult, I thought, once the spontaneous laughter had subsided. Crushing without being abusive, humiliating without getting personal. In a sudden burst of warmth and nostalgia, it made me think of the many entertaining publicly delivered insults I remember. For to openly criticise someone – especially those in positions of power or importance – takes courage. And to do it with wit makes the sledge a relic to be preserved.
Whose pen is mightier?
Shakespearean insults, of course, are legendary for their robustness and vitriol. “’Sblood, you starvelling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!”(Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4). (‘sblood is an angry exclamation; starvelling means starving; pizzle means what you think it does.) How does one recover from such damning invective? Or “Ay, do, do; thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows; an assinego may tutor thee.” (Troilus and Cressida, Act2, Scene 1) (assinego = a little ass).
But it’s so much more fun when insults are traded between real people. And here the writers truly, wickedly shine. My personal favourite is acerbic Truman Capote, pioneer of the non-fiction novel, responding to the Beat generation writers: “That’s not writing, that’s typing. *insert burn emoji* (Different versions of this quote have been attributed to Capote.) I recently gained some courage between abortive attempts at reading Ulysses from the words of Carl Jung, the iconic Swiss psychiatrist. “It not only begins and ends in nothingness, but it consists of nothing but nothingness. It is all infernally nugatory,” he famously wrote in his review of the cerebral masterpiece. A put-down of an intellectual by an intellectual gives us ordinary mortals cheap thrills of the premium variety.
And the Oscar goes to…
Closer home, a quote was not too long ago attributed to Ratan Tata in the context of the Ambanis. “We’re industrialists and they’re businessmen,” he is said to have remarked implacably to a reporter. The quote, however, is unverified, according to fact-checking websites. So, everyone who exulted in the smoothness of the retort (me included) will have to be more vigilant in their news consumption. Confirmation bias, as our divided times have taught us, runs deep.
Still, apocryphal insults have their own place in the collective imagination, much like the “anecdotal evidence” of homeopathic practice; both entities are self-affirming despite the lack of proof. From Marie Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake” to “You just dropped the World Cup” (Steve Waugh never actually said those words to Herschelle Gibbs at Headingley in the1999 Cricket World Cup), we’ve built entire narratives around these slurs floating in the air. Why let authenticity come in the way of a truly withering put-down? And before we leave this section, how can we not invoke the spirit of that prodigious wit, Oscar Wilde. “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go,” he is said to have said. In fact, if one were to hand out a ‘Is said to have said’ award to a figure from history, Oscar would be the unanimous choice.
The dictionary of ethical slurs
My Bandra convent school upbringing has had far-reaching effects on my life, but the one that gets most commented on is my insult vocabulary. I beg the pardon of animal lovers who will find these “slurs” to be speciesist. Donkey is used for morons; pig for louts; and dogs for the cruel. I realise the need to outgrow this limited and insulting (but in the wrong way) phraseology. I’ve given the matter deep thought and am currently looking for a lexicon that isn’t speciesist, sexist, ableist and so on. That leaves me with very few options, most of them of the four-letter garden variety.
If only we all had the imaginative powers to concoct original insults that stylishly duck an offender’s “Don’t get personal” argument. I’m currently imagining first-rate comebacks to be used on those who, for instance, offer unsolicited migraine advice. “Get away, you gibberish-mouthing, reason-loathing, thrice removed cousin of logic.” Perhaps not Oscar-worthy, but oh so satisfying.
From HT Brunch,February 2, 2020
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