New Worlds: Insults

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Content note: by dint of the subject matter, this post is going to contain a number of offensive words.

You can learn a lot about a society by looking at what they consider to be insulting.

The basic principle is pretty simple: if you want to speak negatively about a person, you ascribe to them qualities you consider to be undesirable. Or — as a corollary — it isn’t so much the qualities as the way they’re spun; the same action might be described as courageous if you approve of it, reckless if you don’t. (I’ve always found it interesting that sangfroid is a good thing to have, but being cold-blooded is bad . . . even though those literally mean the same thing.) So when you’re trying to decide how to insult a character, the question is what the speaker considers to be bad, and how the target’s behavior can be framed in those terms.

There are patterns in how this tends to play out. One is stupidity: even in the current anti-intellectual climate of the United States, we generally agree that being stupid is not good. Because of the blurred line between this and outright mental disability, stupidity has been on the euphemism treadmill for literally centuries, as we bring in a neverending series of new, theoretically neutral terms for disability, which then become all-purpose insults. Fool, dunce, moron, cretin, imbecile, retard — the list goes on and on. “Cretin” is not derived from an ethnic insult for people from Crete, as I once saw a blog post suggest; it’s from the French chrétien, “Christian.” And not because “Christian” was an insult: on the contrary, it was used to distinguish human beings from brute animals, so calling a disabled person a Christian was supposed to remind you of your shared humanity. (Unfortunately, it didn’t work.)

Speaking of brute animals, that’s another common way to insult someone. Many languages use the qualities of animals both as praise and as condemnation, depending on the quality in question. In English, you can insult a woman (or these days, a man) by calling them a bitch, a female dog; in Spanish it’s zorra instead, i.e. a vixen, a female fox. In Japanese, chikushou or “beast” is kind of an all-purpose swear word. Being cold-blooded likens you to a reptile, which is off-putting to our mammalian biases. The Chinese zodiac may promote the admirable qualities of the pig, but in English calling someone by that name is not a compliment — and can anybody confirm or deny that this is especially true among religious groups where pork is considered unclean? I also wonder if animal-based insults are less common in cultures that occupy less dominant and distanced of a position over the natural world. Or maybe they’re more common, because those people, being intimately familiar with animal behavior, know exactly when you’re acting like the worst of them. Seeing which animals get singled out for metaphorical use, whether positive or negative, fills in a whole realm of symbolic thinking for that culture.

Going back to “bitch,” gender is an unfortunately common source of derogatory terms. When women are considered to be inferior, one of the worst things you can do to a man is to compare him to a woman. Conversely, a woman who acts too much like a man will find herself insulted on those grounds instead. “Bitch” is notably versatile in this regard: when applied to a female target, it usually means she’s being too strident, aggressive, etc, i.e. the negative version of what in a man would be considered confident and assertive behavior. But when applied to a male target, it usually implies weakness, lack of spine, and other supposedly womanish qualities. If you’re trying to depict a society without strict gender roles and their associated chauvinism, therefore, it helps to scrutinize your language for these kinds of gender-skewed idioms and scrub them out.

This rapidly slides into matters of the body, as sex-specific characteristics become synecdoche for the whole. A man you don’t like might be a dick or a prick, even though we have other aspects of our culture that valorize the male body. The female equivalents tend to carry more negative weight: pussy, cunt, etc. On the other hand, that latter word has a degree of general usage in British slang that’s unthinkable in the U.S., while the former has recently been repurposed in American politics via the “pussy hat” phenomenon and “Pussy Grabs Back.” Nobody’s yet stood up for the word “asshole,” though (despite the fact that, as the saying goes, assholes are like opinions: everybody has one. Or rather, the other way around). Until we start having conversations with sentient dung beetles, I’m pretty sure that everything associated with defecation is going to remain conceptually unclean and therefore fair game for insulting use.

Sexual behavior is a whole field of its own where this is concerned. Here gender comes right back in: a man who sleeps around might be a stud (good), but a woman who does the same is often a slut (bad). Harlot, whore, skank — again, the list goes on and on. Men more often get hit from the angle of homosexuality, which has seen a whole lot of reclamation effort in recent years, where U.S. parlance is concerned. Gay, fag/faggot, queer, fairy, and other such terms have been embraced by the LGBTQ movement, though others have fallen almost completely out of use (e.g. molly or nancy) and some are still right out (tranny for a trans person). And then there’s the product of certain kinds of sexual behavior: calling someone a bastard no longer carries the connotation of illegitimate birth, but that was its origin, and as such it used to be grounds for a duel.

And then we have the racial, religious, and national slurs, which are unfortunately endless. The euphemism treadmill has been busily turning for people of African descent in the United States; the NAACP is a prestigious organization, but using the phrase “colored people” these days is unacceptable, while “people of color” (whose meaning is broader) has been gaining currency. Lots of these terms came into use when we were at war with a certain country and then faded after the war ended, because they reflect the political tensions of the time — so the ones that are still around are a good pointer to where those tensions are alive and well. Then they serve double duty, because you can insult someone not of that group by calling them an X-lover or other such pejorative. A few of them have gained wider use: saying that someone “gypped” you is a reference to the supposed dishonesty of gypsies, the people more properly known as Romani, while “welching” or “welshing” on a bet is possibly an artifact of the perception that Welsh people were likewise dishonest, and “jewing” indicates driving a hard bargain or even cheating.

The ones that really interest me in secondary worlds, though, are the terms that are really specific to their culture. References to great traitors of the past (as “Judas” is still used sometimes today) give you a sense of history’s ongoing weight, if the reader has some context for the term. A really militarized society might use words like “civilian” as a way of sneering at people who don’t contribute enough to the war effort. In the comic book series Elfquest, the hunter-gatherer Wolfriders’ ultimate expression of condemnation is “meat to be wasted” — a person so contemptible they don’t even deserve to play a final role in the food chain. These types of things take work to invent, and more work to sell the reader on the offensiveness of the term . . . but when done right, they make a vivid contribution to the mental landscape of the setting.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of The Memoirs of Lady Trent and the Onyx Court series of historical fantasies. The second book of the Wilders series, Chains and Memory, is on sale now from Book View Cafe. More information can be found on her website, Swan Tower.
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20 Responses to New Worlds: Insults

  1. When I was in grade school/middle school–ancient times–“Your mother wears combat boots,” was considered a huge insult without swear words, something that could be shouted across the playground without a teacher coming down on you with ruler in hand. At the time it referred to a) an extremely masculine woman, or b) a woman so poor she could only afford cast off, ill-fitting, military surplus.

    Now it can be a point of pride and honor that a woman wears combat boots in service of our country.

    • Kayote says:

      My mother said she was always afraid someone would yell “Your mother wears combat boots” at me and I’d say “Doesn’t everyone’s?” (I think that is probably the best response, personally, so not sure why she worried).

      It never happened, because 1) that wasn’t an insult used on my playground and 2) I didn’t know her heavy boots were combat boots.

      • My mother said she was always afraid someone would yell “Your mother wears combat boots” at me and I’d say “Doesn’t everyone’s?”

        <applause>

    • Whoa — that’s fascinating! I’ve never heard that one before.

      • I guess your generation is too young. I remember that one well!

        • Anthony Docimo says:

          I remember “your mama wears combat boots”…but it wasn’t an offensive insult, any more than “your mother was a hamster & your father smelled of elderberries” was — it was something more like a mock insult you traded with your friends (i always walked in on these too late to catch how they started, but there would be a few back-and-forths of mock insults, and then both friends would laugh and go on their merry way together).
          I never understood it, given that there were very real offensive insults out there, and nobody wasted time explaining it to me. (though, could it have been defensive?, with someone hears the mock insults being flung back and forth, and keeps walking, looking for a target who isn’t already being picked on).
          apologies if I’m rambling.

  2. Hanneke says:

    1) I don’t think the ongoing use of Dutch something-or-other as pejoratives in English means there are still present-day tensions between the countries ; just that after three Anglo-Dutch wars a few centuries ago those have become fixed terms with specific meanings (like going Dutch, or Dutch courage).
    One thing I’ve noticed is that Dutch doesn’t contain the equivalent English-as-a-pejorative-adjective combinations (and has a generally favorable mindset about English/England after being saved by them and the other English-speaking countries in WW2, apart from specifics like Brexit and football hooligans); so it’s not necessarily reciprocal.
    I guess that’s too much backstory for a simple invented insult in a fantastic setting, though the wars-fought-long-ago motivation could work there…

    2) I tend to like the colourful alternatives that people who don’t like to swear offensively (in front of children, or women, or at all) come up with. In English the only one that comes to mind immediately is the use of heck for hell, but at least in Dutch there are a lot more, and they are a lot stranger than that. A lot of those have become fixtures used by (grand)parents, schoolteachers, and other mild-mannered or socially constrained people.
    One of my favorites is “potvolblomme” (pot full of flowers) for “Godverdomme” (Goddamn) – there are at least 3 different pots-(of-)something in common use in Dutch that sound slighly similar (like potjandorie), as well as similar colourful euphemisms for other common insult-phrases and words. Words like “zuurpruim” (acid(ic) plum/prune/chewtobacco) can be a very good and descriptive insult without offending any readers’ sensibilities, and making them up would probably be even more fun than making up new insults based on the same old limited subjects…

    • I remember Dutch bob (short haircut, but for some reason was mostly said of blondes) and Dutch cleanliness (meaning really, really spic-and-span). Nothing pejorative. But then my particular family included a bunch of Swedes and Norwegians, who held the Dutch in high esteem.

    • Interesting — I’ve never heard “Dutch courage.” It’s always been “liquid courage” instead, which is more general. “Going Dutch” I have heard, but never in a pejorative sense; maybe mores have changed? Definitely in my social circles, splitting the bill was a common practice and rarely if ever frowned on.

      The invented terms you give are great! Ours are mostly boring, I think — stuff like “shoot” and “shucks” and other things beginning with “sh.” (And now I’m thinking of the second Hunger Games movie, where one of the characters was clearly snarling “fuck” while in pain . . . but since the last phoneme never made it out of his mouth, it passed muster in the film. “Fuuuuuuuuuuu –” is not a swear word!)

    • Marva Grossman says:

      To “heck” I can add its counterpart “darn” as a Bowdlerized “damn”, and from there it’s easy to see how you get “Gosh-darn it!”

      I must point out, to a newcomer to a culture it is not at all obvious which words are the “real” cusswords and which are the euphemisms. When my brother and I arrived in the US as young children in the early 1990s, we heard the sanitized cussing long before we heard the real thing (“darn” in particular was common in the Calvin and Hobbes comics as well as in children’s speech at the time). And many of the adults supervising us responded to “darn” or “heck” just as if it was the real thing. Accordingly that’s how we learned to swear, although I was somewhat perplexed to learn from some historical books (I think Laura Ingalls Wilder or E. Nesbit) that “to darn” was to repair holes in socks, and perfectly respectable in that context. I think it was only when I read Terry Pratchett’s Reaper Man as an almost-adult that I suddenly understood what our “darn” and “heck” were and where they came from.

      In our case there may have been a case of cultural as well as linguistic ignorance. To someone who has not been raised in the Christian tradition, “damn” and “Hell” are fairly meaningless syllables, too.

      • And many of the adults supervising us responded to “darn” or “heck” just as if it was the real thing.

        Which makes sense, from a certain standpoint. Papering over a cuss word with a thinly-veiled alternative is acceptable if you view the cuss word itself as inherently foul, but not at all if it’s the impulse underlying the curse that you object to.

  3. Koby says:

    I can confirm that among Arabs and Jews (at least those I know here in Israel) ‘Dog’ and ‘Pig’ are very serious insults, because of the religious uncleanliness of those animals, though ‘Dog’ is not as insulting as at once was. Still, if you listen to some of the videos terrorists broadcast they often use them. ‘Monkey’ is also favored,probably for the sub-human connotation – that is, that person is similar to a human, but not actually one.

    I remember reading that German had a huge amount of curses and insults all related to feces and anus, but I don’t know enough Germans to know if this is true.

    Also, in our family, ‘stupid/stupido’ was considered a bad word, so we came up with the bowdlerized ‘pupid/pupido’ which implied that you had done something stupid, but was also meant affectionately, as it was reserved only for family. My mother permitted it, and indeed, even came to use it herself.

    • Still, if you listen to some of the videos terrorists broadcast they often use them.

      I had that impression . . . but I had that impression from movies, which are hardly a reliable source. I have to admit I try not to watch or listen to the real thing.

      Also, in our family, ‘stupid/stupido’ was considered a bad word, so we came up with the bowdlerized ‘pupid/pupido’ which implied that you had done something stupid, but was also meant affectionately, as it was reserved only for family. My mother permitted it, and indeed, even came to use it herself.

      Nice! That’s a great bit of family lore.

  4. T. says:

    My cousin and I used to curse in German when we were both in middle school (our mothers were German), but one of our moms heard us one day shouting various expletives for one reason or another (maybe a contest — ha), and kindly gave us an alternative to “sh*t”, etc. — it was “scheibenkleister” — which sounded terrible and fierce when shouted, especially to our fellow students who were non-German speaking American kids. Of course, we were told it meant “window pane”, basically the putty used to hold the window bits together, I think. But we didn’t tell anyone else that. 🙂

    • Hah! Yeah, I may have used some non-profane foreign words as substitute curses when I was growing up. As long as you aren’t talking to anybody who knows the language, it can work great!

    • Zena says:

      Ha, ha—and there is something about the German language that can make just about any word sound like an expletive. I can still hear my mother shouting “schweinehund!” at our wayward pooch from the back door. Seems that the only German words I remember clearly are the cuss words…

  5. Elyse says:

    In Barbara Hambly’s first portal fantasy trilogy (I don’t remember which volume) there is a friendly exchange of insults between a Chicano guy who came through the portal and and an ex-horse-nomad, who had become friends:
    “Your mother!”
    “Your horse!”
    And it made sense in context because she had shown (or described) them learning about each other’s attitudes.
    I love that trilogy… lived up to the ‘Gandalf in a modern kitchen with a beer can’ that was the original cover of the first volume by showing a modern scholar attacking a mystery with academic techniques.