by David Sisler

A dozen years ago I found a collection of insults. I would give credit to their compiler if I could. Since I did not document my source, I am forced to throw myself on the mercy of Samuel Johnson, an influential writer from the last half of the 18th century who told a fellow scribe, “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Like many good English words, “insult” started out as a good Latin word. “Insultare” means to spring on, or leap upon. An insult was originally an attack. It still is, only now, the attack is verbal.

The day of the snappy retort is not over. We just need to use our imagination to creatively “tell someone off.” Unfortunately, the classic zinger is quickly becoming a lost art. It is easy to call a spade a spade, but to do it with style and grace takes practice. We seem to be content, however, to simply yell at each other, use racial epitaphs, or vulgar language.

Such was not always the case. In fact, an ancient Roman poet practiced the fine art of the acid tongue when he wrote, “I could do without your face, and your neck, and your hands, and your limbs, and your bosom, and other of your charms. Indeed, not to fatigue myself with enumerating each of them, I could do without you, Chloe, altogether.”

Politics is a great source of such exchanges. Do you remember the campaign of George Herbert Walker Bush? “My dog, Millie, knows more about foreign policy than those two bozos.”

About 20 years earlier, Dick and Dan were discussing crooks and ducks. Reporter Dan Rather gave an interesting definition to President Richard Nixon: “If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck!” Mr. Rather must have prayed for just such a moment to use that one.

In these days of tax and spend, we need someone like Mark Twain to speak sober words to our elected representatives. Tom Sawyer’s creator once remarked, “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” He may have been addressing a politician when he said, “Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without any address on it?”

A heckler once yelled at New York Governor Al Smith, “Tell us all you know, Al. It won’t take long.” Smith shot back, “I’ll tell ‘em all we both know. It won’t take any longer!”

When Calvin Coolidge was president, a member of his political party went fishing for a compliment. “Did you like my speech, Mr. President?” he asked.

“It was not bad,” Silent Cal replied, “but you missed a great opportunity.”

“What was that?” the speaker wondered.

The President replied, “The opportunity to sit down about twenty minutes earlier.”

During the Civil War, his generals caused Abraham Lincoln much exasperation. General George B. McClellan’s indecision was particularly frustrating to the President. Mr. Lincoln wrote the general a note which said, “My dear McClellan. If you do not want to use the Army I should like to borrow it.”

Lincoln said of his political opponent, Stephen A. Douglas, “His argument is as thin as soup made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death.”

Not everyone held Lincoln in high esteem. Consider these adjectives from Harper’s Weekly: “Filthy story-teller, despot, liar, thief, braggart, buffoon, usurper, monster, perjurer, robber, swindler, tyrant, fiend, butcher.” Don’t mince words, fellows. What do you really think?

Two classic insults came from the lips of Winston Churchill.

Lady Astor once told Winston Churchill, “Winston, if you were my husband, I should flavor your coffee with poison.” “Madam,” Mr. Churchill replied, “If I were your husband, I should drink it!”

At a social gathering, a member of Parliament, Bessie Braddock said to Mr. Churchill, “Winston, you’re drunk.” The former prime minister said, “Bessie, you’re ugly, and tomorrow morning I’ll be sober but you’ll still be ugly!”

Writers have been on the receiving end of some sharp insults. Groucho Marx told an author, “From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.”

James McNeill Whistler did more than just paint a portrait of his mother. Once he said something memorable in the presence of Oscar Wilde. Wilde exclaimed, “I wish I had said that!”

“Don’t worry, Oscar,” replied Whistler. “You will, you will.”

Someone once said of Socrates, “The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.”

Cities make good targets. It was too easy calling Cleveland, “the mistake on the lake.” We all have our least-favorite town of which we say, “I spent a week there one night.” It really doesn’t say this on W. C. Fields’ tombstone, but many echo the sentiments: “I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

How about this classic? “The difference between Los Angeles and yogurt is that yogurt has an active, living culture.”

Let’s not leave whole states out of this. Will Rogers was a native of Oklahoma, but he got in a beaut’ when he said, “Introducing an Oklahoma governor is a tough job. You never know before you get through speaking but what he has been impeached while you were singing his praises.”

Expanding the borders of our geography lesson, we once again call on Oscar Wilde who said, “Of course, America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up.”

One of my all-time favorites comes from the Broadway musical, “My Fair Lady.” Professor Henry Higgins said, “There are places where English completely disappears. Why in America, they haven’t used it in years.”

Mahatma Gandhi topped both Wilde and Higgins when he was asked what he thought of Western Civilization. The Great Soul replied, “I think that it would be a very good idea.”

A foe of Great Britain once remarked, “I know why the sun never sets on the British Empire. God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark.”

Now, a few good execrates that fit no particular category.

Walt Kelley, the creator of Pogo and the fantastic characters who inhabited his comic strip version of the Okefenokee Swamp, was talking about abstract art when he came up with the following classic. His words could apply to many things: “A product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”

How many preachers could “Amen” this one? The Reverend Sydney Smith said, “When I am in the pulpit, I have the pleasure of seeing my audience nod appreciation while they sleep.”

But almost enough. I shall close this collection with a timeless insult spoken by the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders of the Jerusalem synagogue, and directed at Jesus of Nazareth as he hung on Calvary’s cross, dying for the sins of all humanity.

“He saved others,” they jeered, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

When Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane, Peter drew a sword to protect his Master, but Jesus told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place. Surely you know I could ask my Father, and he would give me more than twelve armies of angels to rescue me from their hands. But it must happen this way to bring about what the Scriptures say.”

And so rather than abandon us just to save himself, he bore the insult, false though it was, and he bore our sins and paid the price of eternal redemption for “whosoever will.” We insult him if we reject his free gift.


Copyright 2004 by David Sisler. All Rights Reserved.

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