The lost art of the civilized insult

The art of the insult has been around through all human societies in every human civilization that has left records. You can tell a lot about a society and its values by its insults.

One of the many signs of our cultural decline is that verbal insults have almost invariably become scatological (characterized by an interest in excrement and excretion) or crudely sexual.

Once upon a time the ability to come up with a clever insult that could be repeated in polite society was considered an important component of being civilized.

The masters

The caustic wit of some of history’s greatest intellectuals has lived on through their famous insults.


Irish playwright, critic and political activist George Bernard Shaw.

George Bernard Shaw and Winston Churchill were two masters of English repartee and wit. Shaw, prior to the opening of one of his plays, sent Churchill a telegram: “I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend, if you have one.” Churchill sent a telegram in reply: “Cannot possibly attend first night; will attend second, if there is one.”

Oscar Wilde was another man of English letters who knew how to insult with sophistication and wit: “He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends.” Wilde also turned his wit on himself, which is a sign of an insulter with class: “I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”


Mark Twain.

American writer, humorist, entrepreneur and publisher Mark Twain had many enemies whom he enjoyed roasting. “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying that I approved of it.”

Shaw appreciated Twain’s wit, saying “Mark Twain and I are in the same position. We have put things in such a way as to make people, who would otherwise hang us, believe that we are joking.”


Ernest Hemingway.

High on the list of immortal put-downs is William Faulkner’s slight of his fellow-Nobel laureate, Ernest Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to a dictionary.” Hemingway’s retort: “Poor Faulkner. He thinks big emotions come from big words.”

Political badinage

Winston Churchill and Lady Astor.

Today’s political badinage is feeble compared with that of yesteryear. Churchill famously, over dinner, was told by Lady Astor, the American-born female member of the House of Commons, that, “If you were my husband, Winston, I’d poison your soup,” to which Churchill immediately replied, “And if you were my wife, Nancy, I’d drink it.”

About Labour minister, Sir Stafford Cripps, Churchill said: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”

A member of parliament to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” Disraeli: “That depends, Sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

Nine glorious insults that do not reduce to four-letter words

Mae West: “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.”

Albert Einstein: “Only two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not so sure about the former.”

Beethoven: “I like your opera. I think I will set it to music.”

King Edward VIII: “The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children.”

Winston Churchill: “Americans will always try to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”


Mohandas Gandhi, the Mahatma.

Mahatma Gandhi: “What do you think of Western Civilization?” “I think it would be a good idea.”

Billy Wilder: “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.”

Timothy Leary: “Women who want to be equal with men lack ambition.”

Dorothy Parker: “The woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.”

Watch: The best of Mae West


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