Words & Stuff

II: One Act Short of a Full Play

(30 August 1998)

[Warning: this week's column may not be for the faint of heart, as it contains at least one word (besides "contumelious") not generally considered acceptable in polite company. Read at your own risk.]

In an earlier column, I mentioned the Shakespearean Insults magnetic-poetry kit, which yielded up such mellifluous phrases as "malignant swagger-nosed contumelious sot." Since then I've encountered a new magnetic set that reduces the same general idea to a more basic form: most of the magnets in the set contain only the word "fuck." (This set addresses my complaint about most magnetic-word sets by including punctuation, in the form of magnets with nothing but exclamation points on them. Very useful.)

The original Shakespearean Insult Kit came along before the magnetic poetry craze. It was assembled "by Jerry Maguire, who teaches English at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Indiana," and circulated widely in newspapers and on the Net. It consisted of three columns (two adjective columns and a noun column) listing insulting words from Shakespeare; to create an insult, one chose a word from each column, and prefaced the result with "Thou," as in "Thou mewling milk-livered maggot-pie!" or "Thou wayward weather-bitten wagtail!" (Alliteration is not required, but I rather prefer it.) One can even choose multiple adjectives: "Thou gleeking, unmuzzled, sheep-biting canker-blossom!" Ranjit Bhatnagar created the first insult server on the Web using this kit; it would randomly pick a Shakespearean insult for you, in case you weren't feeling up to the task of choosing an item from each column, but it's long gone. A couple of other Shakespearean Insult servers based on similar kits are still online, though: one at kitenet.net, for instance, and another at sleepingcat.com.

For more modern insults, one could do worse than turning to the Canonical List of Fulldeckisms. A fulldeckism is an insulting description along the lines of "not playing with a full deck," indicating that the describee is a little dim, or a little crazy, or both. Many of the items on the list are more like regular insults than fulldeckisms as such (such as Churchill's comment "A modest little person, with much to be modest about"), but many of them are entertaining (and creative) nonetheless.

Here are some examples:

A titanic intellect... In a world full of icebergs.
Always speaks her mind, so usually she's speechless.
As sharp as a mashed potato sandwich, and twice as smart.
Brain as busy as a hog farmer in Israel.
Couldn't count to 21 if he were barefoot and without pants.
Couldn't tell which way the elevator was going if he had two guesses.
Has signs on both ears saying "Space for Rent".
He is a man of few words and he does not know what either of them mean.  -- Pratchett
He's so dense, light bends around him.
Her IQ is the reason they had to invent negative numbers.
His signal-to-noise ratio is epsilon. [Sorry, math joke. "Epsilon" essentially means "vanishingly small"]
If brains were water, hers wouldn't be enough to baptize a flea.
If he had brains, he'd take them out and play with them.
If his IQ was two points higher he'd be a rock.
If what you don't know can't hurt you, she's practically invulnerable.
If you give him a penny for his thoughts, you get change back.
If you stand close enough to him, you can hear the ocean.
One beer short of a six-pack.
One couplet short of a sonnet.
One flying buttress short of a cathedral.
One revision behind.
One tile short of a successful re-entry.

(And one more that's really a malapropism, almost said by Kam: "She wasn't the sharpest cookie on the block.")

As this list demonstrates, the essence of much creative insulting is metaphor. Nowhere is this idea more evident than in the Dozens, a ritual exchange of insults (usually among inner-city black youths) that you don't hear much about these days. The form figured prominently in several books and pop-culture items in the '70s and '80s, and even some scholarly research. Here are a couple of examples of Dozens-style insults which somehow fall flat (origin unknown):

Yo mama's so fat... she's gotta buy big clothes.
Yo mama's so ugly... I can't look at her.
Your mother's so low... she ought to take Prozac.
Your mother's like the sun... she sets at night. (Something of a secret yet there...)

According to articles from Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression, reprinted in Opus Maledictorum: A Book of Bad Words, there are other ritualized Dozens-like exchanges among other subcultures. The insults in such an exchange are generally so extreme that they can't be taken seriously; the point is apparently more to silence your opponent with wit than to make literally true insulting remarks.

Of course, this column barely scratches the surface of the topic of insults. Anyone interested in a great deal more information on the subject should consult Maledicta or Opus Maledictorum where available. The book includes a remarkable variety of materials, from scholarly articles on phonology and etymology, to sociological and regional studies, to taxonomies of insults, to straightforward jokes (including one or two essentially inoffensive ones).

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>