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The Dwindling Art Of A Perfect Insult

Published: March 26, 2021

Internet Trolls Are Abundant

One thing people probably agree on is that our world has become coarser. People don’t hesitate to insult people on Facebook or anywhere else online. As Vivek Murthy and Alice Chen wrote on, “The values of social media [are] sensationalism, us-vs-them rhetoric and curating one’s life to look perfect.”

And no matter where you go you can’t get away from the cursing. It used to be the most common word in the English language was the. Now it’s a word that begins with F.

Nothing Like A Fine Insult

Of course, insulting people is nothing new. But it used to be done with more class, more panache. Here are some examples:

Said New York theater critic Walter Kerr about a rival: “He had delusions of adequacy.”

Or Winston Churchill about a fellow politician: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

Winston Churchill was always good for a laugh. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill’s reply: “Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second … if there is one.”

Or how about another retort. A member of Parliament told Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” To which Disraeli responded, “That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

William Faulkner insulted fellow novelist Ernest Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

Another writer, Moses Hadas, sent this response to a colleague: “Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.”

Everett Collection /

Okay, here’s a groaner from movie director Billy Wilder: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.”

Some go for the jugular, like this one from lawyer Clarence Darrow: “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”

Or Mark Twain: “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”

And then American journalist Irwin S. Cobb: “I’ve just learned about his illness. Let’s hope it’s nothing trivial.”

Some insults are fairly subtle, but no less cutting. Oscar Wilde remarked about one person: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.”

Or British statesman John Bright: “He is a self-made man and worships his creator.”

Then the old Samuel Johnson who said of a fellow Englishman: “He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others.”

Actress Mae West was always good for an insult: “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

American actor Forrest Tucker along the same lines: “He loves nature in spite of what it did to him.”

Here’s one from Scottish writer Andrew Lang to keep in mind whenever you’re reading something on Facebook or anywhere else on or offline: “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts … for support rather than illumination.”

And finally, another from Oscar Wilde: “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go.”

And so … I’d better go!

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About The Author
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits
Tom Lashnits spent 40 years in New York book and magazine publishing before retiring to Bucks County, PA, in 2017. He now volunteers in the school system, produces the baby boomer blog Sightings Over Sixty . . . and is just starting to chase after grandchildren.
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