The other day I spent a little too long flicking through my copy of The Shakespeare Insult Generator (which is a little book that all word lovers should own… and possibly carry at all times), and it got me to thinking about insults in literature. It takes special skill to be able to put together a burn so searing that it remains memorable and, as my tremendous Grandmother would no doubt affirm, people just don’t bother with proper language anymore.
Whether or not that is completely true, it certainly is clear that all-caps invective and furiously spluttered expletives don’t give one a great deal on which to chew. A well-timed, well-articulated, visually suggestive and surgically precise rejoinder is something to truly relish.
So. Here are some of my favourite put-downs, comebacks and stinging zingers from books. Please make sure you are somewhere where snort-chortling is appropriate. We’ll open with an Oscar Wilde because, duh:
• “I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result.”— Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
• “In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement right up to your neck. No… right up to your nose… that’s much quieter.” – Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
• “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring
• “He would make a good lamp post if he’d weather better and didn’t have to eat.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano
• “If looks could kill, you’d soon find out that yours couldn’t.” – Iris Owens, After Claude
• He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, guttural verbs, and the word ‘postmodernist’.”― Donna Tartt, The Secret History
• “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol… You never know when you might need to put a ghost in its place.
• “On a related subject, Signore Pazzi, I must confess to you: I’m giving serious thought to eating your wife.” – Thomas Harris, Hannibal
• “If your brains were dynamite there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Timequake
• “Did you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your circumstances?” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
• “She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when’. ” – P.G. Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves
• “Listen, three eyes,” he said, “don’t you try to outweird me, I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal.” – Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
• “I got to tell you, you don’t look too bright. I got a son, stupid as a man who bought his stupid at a two-for-one sale, and you remind me of him.” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods
And we’ll finish with a Shakespeare, because this one continues to be both popular and multi-purpose:
• “Villain, I have done thy mother!” — Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus