It takes quick wit, smarts, and guts to deliver a verbal punch that sticks. But more than dullness of intellect, it’s political correctness and reluctance to escalate conflict that make great insults the rare gems they are today.
With the exception of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, and Roderigo Duterte, few current day politicians include off-the wall insults in their political arsenal. That’s largely why the latter’s alleged ‘son of a whore’ smear spread around the world so fast.
As slurs go, it was nasty but lazy. Worse, it had no grounding in truth. Despite that, it grabbed headlines everywhere and set social media alight. That alleged affront hit the news again with reports that Duterte, on visiting Indonesia, had told the Filipino community that he never made that statement.
Dr David Fitzgerald, international politics lecturer at University College Cork, says: “What’s unusual about Rodrigo Duterte’s insulting of Barack Obama is that these sorts of epithets are far less common in international politics, where diplomatic etiquette is far more valuable than cheap point-scoring.”
That’s a fact that seems to have gone over the head of Boris Johnson. There is no Debrett’s Guide to Diplomacy, but maybe there should be and maybe he should write it. After all, there seems to be little he doesn’t know about the art.
He alone has learned that there are consequences for comparing Hillary Clinton to a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital, penning a limerick in which the Turkish president has sex with a goat, and insulting the entire Papua New Guinea race. He alone has learned that while his track record of loose-tongued feather-ruffling could have resulted in him being banished to the political wilderness, it instead landed him a much coveted job in Theresa May’s government.
While Johnson’s jibes are embarrassing, David Cameron’s insults tend to amuse. “We’ve got a shadow chancellor who can’t count and a Labour leader who doesn’t count... he is the nothing man!” bellowed Cameron once. Snide, cutting, and entirely offensive, his attacks had power, not just because they were acerbic, but because they were so often epic exaggerations of the truth.
During his time as prime minister, Cameron got away with belittling and slating his political adversaries because it was arguably his job to do so. His skill at vocally lacerating opponents, with mocking taunts cloaked in jocularity, was legendary. But even so, when accompanied by vociferous brays of approval from his political cronies his behaviour called to mind the bully-boy tactics of the playground in which the loud-mouth is brave when accompanied by his gang.
When referred to as ‘Dodgy Dave’ by Labour MP Dennis Skinner in light of the Panama Papers scandal, Cameron looked uncomfortable, shifting papers on his lap. In that he was living proof that, no matter how clever or warranted the ribbing, dishing it out is one thing; taking it is quite another.
Memorable insults are sometimes better remembered than those who utter them. While it was a gentleman by the name of Thomas B Reed, who dished out the verbal equivalent of poison with honey on the side when he described William McKinley as having “less backbone than a chocolate eclair”, credit for the slur went to the popular Teddy Roosevelt.
It did his target no harm either, given that McKinley went on to become US president.
For all their cleverness, obviously contrived insults are often less memorable than those that appear to be uttered off the cuff.
Abraham Lincoln’s putdown of his rival Stephen Douglas went down in history, but “his argument is as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death”, is not a slur we often hear parroted about town.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of “talking through her fanny”. Even so, when senator David Norris opined in the Upper House that Fine Gael TD Regina Doherty was doing just that, she responded by saying she was upset by “the personal nature of the remarks”, which she described as “contrived and intentional”.
As for the historical role played by insults in politics, Dr Fitzgerald says: “In societies without mass literacy, they can offer a witty and brief way of characterising an opponent in a way that’s likely to stick. For instance, we might think of Donald Trump’s manner as being particularly insulting, but if we look at politics in the United States during the 19th century, we see much more colourful language being used.
“Most famously, president John Adams called Alexander Hamilton a ‘bastard brat of a Scotch peddler’, which was a convenient way of reminding his audience that Hamilton had indeed been born out of wedlock.”
As put-downs go, few are as memorably gentlemanly as that uttered by British statesman and 4th Earl of Sandwich John Montagu.
In response to the actor Samuel Foote declaring that “I have often wondered what catastrophe would bring you to your end; but I think that you must either die of the pox or the halter”, Montagu shot back: “My lord, that will depend upon one of two contingencies; whether I embrace your lordship’s mistress, or your lordship’s principles.’