How to Insult Someone in English Posted by Gary Locke on Jan 11, 2018 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary
We have a saying in English, “Don’t get mad, get even.” It means that if someone has upset you, or wronged you in any way, you shouldn’t get angry with them. Instead, you should do something that will make them even more upset at you. We have a word for that, too: one-upmanship. It is the practice of gaining superiority over another. And the best way to accomplish that is by insulting someone so effectively that they are left speechless.
I’m not talking about calling someone a vulgar name. Anybody can do that, and while it may briefly make you feel better it doesn’t, as the saying goes, put them in their place. A good insult requires putting some real thought into it. If someone says something to you, or about you, and you can respond immediately with a good insult, that’s called a retort, a comeback, or a zinger. Do it properly and you can drop the mic, which means that this conversation is over!
If you can insult someone well, then you are displaying a notable talent in the use of language. Many of the best and brightest minds in the history of the English language were adroitly adept at what is known as the putdown. One of the great masters of this was the legendary British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. He was known to frequently drink more than his share of alcohol. Upon hearing a woman refer to him as a drunk, Churchill responded: “I may be drunk, madam, but in the morning I will be sober, and you will still be ugly.”
Another woman at a dinner party got so angry with Churchill that she told him, “Winston, if you were my husband, I would poison your coffee.”
Churchill replied, “And if I was your husband, I’d drink it.”
Essentially, insults are like a game played with wit, acumen, and timing. Willingly or not, you have been drawn into a confrontation in which what you say, and how you say it, can put you on top as the winner. Remember, you don’t want to get angry because that can quickly escalate into a fight and get physical. Nobody wants that. These are just words, after all.
Good insults rely on knowing something about the person you need to insult. The best insult applies specifically to whomever you wish to offend, and is in direct response to what was said to you or about you. An insult delivered days after you were offended won’t earn you any respect. Pick apart what someone said by insulting their logic or reasoning. “None of that made any sense, but coming from you it sounded like genius.” Or,” I’d challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see that you’re unarmed.”
Which brings us to one of the best types of insults, the backhanded compliment. This is a statement which sounds like a compliment but is in actuality an insult. “I like your new sweater. It doesn’t make you look quite so fat.”
Use sarcasm to deflect the hurt, or to inflict a new one. Remember Severus Snape from the Harry Potter books and films? His sarcasm was delightfully droll, as when he congratulated Hermione for speaking out of turn with the zinger, “Five more points from Gryffindor for being an insufferable know-it-all.”
I have always admired those who can insult well. The great 20th-century comedian Groucho Marx was skilled at it. Once a woman told Groucho that she and her husband had 17 children. When he registered surprise, she told Groucho that she loved her husband. Groucho replied, “I love my cigar, too, but I take it out once in a while.”
But, when it comes to insults, and this should come as no surprise, the master of them all was probably William Shakespeare. The great Bard of Avon found ways to compose insults which have set the standards for all of us to follow and, in so doing, created many of the words which have stood the test of time as insulting phrases. There is something called the Shakespeare Insult Kit, a real tool for creating insults in Shakespeare’s own words and language. If you combine insults in the form of a pronoun, an adjective, and a noun, you arrive at the artistry that is the Shakespearean insult. I encourage you to try it for yourself, you loutish, tickle-brained ninny!
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