Those of us who love words have to admit, occasionally, that the best words are the ones writers use to insult people. Shakespeare’s King Lear has the most elaborate insult in the great man’s oeuvre: “Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mungril bitch.”
As early as 1652, the British writer Thomas Urquhart, in his Ekskybalauron, inveighed against “quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets”. These words, alas, never quite survived into contemporary usage, but the Oxford English Dictionary informs us that someone who is quomodocunquizing “makes money in any possible way,” while a “clusterfist” is “a ‘close-fisted’ or grasping fellow.” The 17th century also gave us “cockwomble”, another word sadly fallen into disuse, meaning a man who is prone to making idiotic statements and/or behaving inappropriately while thinking himself superior and being convinced of his own importance. Four centuries later, the world seems even more full of cockwombles than ever before.
But the fading away of these fabulously insulting terms did not cramp the style of the famous 20th century English novelist Virginia Woolf, whose diaries revealed a rare talent for insults. “Pale, marmoreal [T.S.] Eliot was there last week, like a chapped office boy on a high stool, with a cold in his head”, reads one diary entry in 1921. As for Sigmund Freud, he was “a screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkey’s light eyes, paralysed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert”.
Other authors brought out the worst in Ms Woolf. E.M. Forster “is limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow.” The writings of others rarely impressed her. “I am reading Point Counter Point [by Aldous Huxley]. Not a good novel. All raw, uncooked, protesting.” Legendary reputations meant little: “[F]ate has not been kind to [Elizabeth Barrett] Browning as a writer. Nobody reads her, nobody discusses her, nobody troubles to put her in her place.”
Of Katherine Mansfield, she wrote: “Her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; and the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too.” Her personal appearance did not make up for her literary deficiencies: “One’s first impression of [Mansfield] was not that she stinks like civet cat that had taken to street walking. In truth I’m a little shocked by her commonness at first sight; lines so hard and cheap.”
Nor did she think very highly of James Joyce’s masterwork Ulysses: “I have read 200 pages so far—not a third; and have been amused, stimulated, charmed, interested, by the first 2 or 3 chapters — to the end of the cemetery scene; and then puzzled, bored, irritated and disillusioned by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples. And Tom, great Tom, thinks this is on par with War and Peace! An illiterate, underbred book it seems to me; the book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating. When one can have the cooked flesh, why have the raw?”
Virginia Woolf could dish it out, but she couldn’t take it. A bad review in the Granta that said she was “defunct” as a writer prompted her to dismiss it as “a snub some little pimpled undergraduate likes to administer, just as he would put a frog in one’s bed”.
Writers, of course, should never be crossed, since they can skewer you with words. “You speak an infinite deal of nothing,” a Shakespeare character memorably told another. Charles Dickens wrote of a character, “He would make a lovely corpse.” George Orwell dismissed another: “He is simply a hole in the air.” An Ernest Hemingway character says: “I misjudged you… You’re not a moron. You’re only a case of arrested development.” Agatha Christie is the politest of the lot: “If you will forgive me for being personal, I do not like your face.”
But the prize still goes to Shakespeare: “I desire that we be better strangers.” So much better than “unfriending” an ex today!
Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language
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