A stupid proposal
Do you know any idiots? How about morons, or imbeciles? Retards, perhaps? People riding the short bus?
The first three items were once part of standard terminology in intelligence measurement: “moron” is the most recent of them, having been proposed in the early twentieth century by Henry Goddard. Before the twentieth century, “idiot” and “imbecile” were general insults, as they are today, though they too were once pressed into service as classifications. For those of you who don’t remember those days, “morons” had what we now call “mild” mental retardation, or IQs between 50 and 70; “imbeciles” had what we now call “moderate” mental retardation, or IQs between 26 and 50; and everyone below that threshold, whom we now call people with “severe and profound” mental retardation, were idiots.
A century ago, “Mongoloid idiot,” for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.
Over the past five years, the number of morons and idiots seems to have increased dramatically. Either that or the use of the terms has increased; as you know, it’s sometimes hard for us literature professors to figure out where language ends and nonlinguistic phenomena begin. But to gauge by the state of our political discourse, things are looking pretty grim. On one side you have people compiling lists of the left’s “useful idiots”; on the other side you have people calling Bush a “moron” and drawing cartoons that liken the U.S. to a classroom led by a “special ed” student. And on the Internets, “retard” is common parlance, found on every point of the political spectrum.
It’s not as if I’ve never used the terms myself. The other day, as my poor automobile was minding its own business, just humming along down the highway, it was suddenly set upon by a clump of drivers so reckless and inattentive that I referred to two of them (then in the act of cutting each other off in the left lane) as “idiots.” “You know,” said my co-pilot, “we should probably retire that word one of these days.” She was right, and I admitted as much at the time. “Besides,” I added, “these guys are really assholes.”
After all, dear reader, it’s not as if the English language is hurtin’ for terms of abuse. If you truly believe that someone is acting unwisely or thinking incompetently, you can draw upon thousands of words that speak about performance rather than capacity, which is far more appropriate anyway (as Chris Clarke has eloquently pointed out). That “moron” you revile might just as easily be a jerk, a jerkoff, or a jackass; the “idiot” in the adjacent car or adjacent voting booth might instead be a fool, a wuss, a sap, a chump, a poltroon, a schlemiel, or a patsy. Even as you read these words, thousands of people are just begging to be called scoundrels, prigs, and coxcombs. Why, there’s even an entire Shakespearean Insult Server available online for those of you who want to hurl especially colorful and vivid forms of contempt and contumely upon your adversaries, so there’s really no excuse for failing to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by this rich and complex language of ours.
If you’re concerned about stigmatizing jackasses, however, on the grounds that you may be likening an innocent beast to a hideous human (or, conversely, figuratively dehumanizing one of your fellow men or women), you can always adopt the more politically correct term “jackass-American,” presuming, of course, that the jackass in question is -American.
So next time you’re fed up with someone and you want to call his or her intelligence or judgment into question, remember: you might be better off with insults that speak to the performance of intelligence or judgment rather than to capacity. This isn’t just a matter of politeness; it’s also a matter of proper English usage. Many, many morons and retards have very good judgment about some matters, whereas many, many ostensibly intelligent people make bafflingly, excruciatingly bad decisions. Why? Because some of them are knaves, and others gulls, and still others hoodlums and miscreants. That’s why.
And some of them are the Dauphin.Posted by Roxanne on 10/24 at 09:14 AM
how about silly twit? or twerp? or nincompoop?
i like knaves, shmucks, etc. also.Posted by on 10/24 at 09:55 AM
I think cleaning up the use of certain invective is a useful and intelligent project. Besides words based on capacity, we should also be aware of words based on gender. As Shakespeare shows us, we still have many words to use and bring back to current English. But sometimes, a knave is a knave as we are finding out in DC.Posted by on 10/24 at 10:01 AM
Here in Pittsburgh we have a popular and all-encompassing slang slam--jagoff (or “jagov”, which to my mind seems the more ethnographically-correct spelling). It’s not used much by the gentry here, but perhaps no other word in the English language is liable to get 2 Pittsburghers ready to drop the gloves. If you’re going to be in Pittsburgh and would like to get into a brawl so you can try out some street-fighting techniques, go to a sports bar during a Steeler game wearing a Ray Lewis jersey and bully your way to the bar sneering, “Get outta my way, jagov”. This Perfect Storm of tribal insult, territorial transgression and attempted sexual domination will get you the response you’re looking for.Posted by Gene Bromberg on 10/24 at 11:19 AM
I would add nuts, crazy, insane etc to the list of insults to avoid. If the person you are insulting is one of the above, they hardly need you adding to their troubles. If they are not, then you are probably slandering the mentally ill by associating them with someone worthy of insult.
I still lapse, even though I have a precious child who is both retarded and exhibits severe psychosis (as well as autism). It isn’t easy to change a lifetime of conditioning.
Of course, you could go further. You could say some people lack the capacity to be honest, decent or law-abiding. It could be considered poor behaviour to insult such unfortunates. Maybe so, but I think I lack the capacity to refrain from doing so. Please, refrain from insulting my lack of capacity in this regard.Posted by on 10/24 at 11:33 AM
When driving, George Carlin’s dichotomy of idiots and maniacs is still useful: an idiot is someone going slower than you; a maniac, someone going faster.
In your example, then, you misused the word idiot. The two drivers you referred to were clearly maniacs.Posted by jim on 10/24 at 11:52 AM
The problem is that one of my favorite movie phrases, which I can imitate in a pure East Texas accent, is the “Well, what th’ hail we s’pposed ta do, ya MO-ron?” line from Douglas Kenney (Stork) in Animal House.
But douchebag. Just not used quite as much as it should be. What does it mean? Why did it become an insult? Who cares?
In any event, it’s too late for me. Hopefully the Professor’s advice will be heeded by the children.Posted by norbizness on 10/24 at 12:03 PM
Michael, I stand chastened. You’re so absolutely correct on this, that from now on I will no longer refer to W as the Great Moron, but henceforth will use the term, the Great Cod-piece.
It sounds so right!Posted by on 10/24 at 12:09 PM
Thanks, Michael, perfect tone for a timely reminder.Posted by on 10/24 at 12:19 PM
So help me out: the other day I called a troll a ‘sheepfucking assmunch’. Is that kosher or not?Posted by NTodd on 10/24 at 12:20 PM
What about “fucktard”? I’ve been seeing that one on the internets a lot recently, and have rather taken a shining to it.Posted by Rob Helpy-Chalk on 10/24 at 12:40 PM
Reminds me of a jazz story: Dizzy and Bird were playing a club somewhere in the South. Two rednecks caught Diz coming out of the bathroom for whites only. They said that he was a stupid and illiterate you know what, and that all you know whats are ignorant. Then one of them hit Diz over the head with a bottle. Bird responded not with fists, but with a bit of verbal contestation (sorry, just got back from a theory conference). “You injured my friend, you cur,” said Bird. Not knowing what a cur was, the rednecks just backed off. I need to remember your admonishment here, Michael, especially when I’m driving. Too many curs on the road.Posted by on 10/24 at 12:45 PM
I do understand what you mean, and mostly I agree. But at some point, doesn’t a term basically mutate on its own? So that the old meaning no longer has any right of ownership? So that we, the current language-users, now own the words?
For example (and I think it’s a pretty well-known example) I remember many years ago, in the letters section of “Ms Magazine”, there was an uproar over the phrase “rule of thumb”. A writer had used it in a self-help article about fixing your own car.
Oh, the fisticuffs that ensued. “Don’t you know that ‘rule of thumb’ is from English common law specifying that it was okay for a man to beat his wife with any switch or stick or branch, as long as the weapon’s width was no thicker than a thumb? How can you perpetuate such hideous violent imagery?”
Similarly, in my Northern California coastal county, there is a smallish school district, consisting of four elementary and middle schools, known as the Dixie School District. Every few years, one particular county resident brings up a petition to change the name of the district because it’s demeaning to black Americans.
But in each of those particular cases, I feel that the old meanings have lost purchase. History has overtaken them and now all new people “own” the phrases. ("Dixie", in the context of this small California school district is practically neutral, in my opinion, although it may not be neutral elsewhere.)
Similarly, if you were to tell me I seemed melancholy, I wouldn’t assume you were telling me I’m mentally ill and should seek professional help. Melancholia used to be a clinical diagnosis, but not so much any more.
I mean, at some point, the scientific or medical implications of “moron”, for example, are going to slough off entirely. Maybe that time isn’t now, but I think it’s close. The daughter of a friend of mine is a young mid-20’s woman with Down syndrome. I never have to remind myself that she mustn’t be called a moron or an imbecile or a retard. She’s Angela. For me, those other epithets have lost any clinical meaning and instead describe annoying instances of bad behavior.
But it’s true that I don’t use those words in routine conversation. I know they are still too fraught. And I’m willing to abstain from phrases if I realize the pain caused by the useage exceeds my need to express myself. For example, I used to use the phrase “bitch-slap”. To be perfectly honest, I’m a Buffyverse person who hasn’t ever listened to much rap music, and when I visualized “bitch-slap”, I pictured it in the context of a strong, tough, not entirely likeable woman getting fed up and delivering one hellacious smackdown to a deserving offender. Duh on me, I know. When I was told that for most people, it connotes women getting beat up for no other reason than allegedly being icky and disgusting and female, it kind of changed my mind.
I guess I’m simply discussing the topic, not debating it. I don’t feel the need to create hard linguistic rules (and I’m not saying you do) because I’m not afraid of the messiness of viewing things on a case-by-case basis.Posted by on 10/24 at 12:47 PM
Great post, Michael. I was wondering as I read it why it is “inappropriate” to say “asshole” in public or on the air, when “moron” or “imbecile” are perfectly acceptable slurs....
Incidentally, and perhaps useful to your driving, a colleague and I had a lengthy disagreement about the appropriate adjectival form of “asshole.” We were torn between “assholic” and “assholean.” After much deliberation, we determined that while an “assholean” act or comment might be an aberration, “assholic,” like “alcoholic,” referred to more chronic behavior.Posted by furious on 10/24 at 12:47 PM
I nominate ‘assclown’ as my favorite neologistic putdown--free of all racial and gender slurs, plus it just makes me laugh, thinking about such a ridiculous creature!Posted by on 10/24 at 12:48 PM
"So help me out: the other day I called a troll a ‘sheepfucking assmunch’. Is that kosher or not? “
I don’t think it matters if it is kosher unless you and/or the insultee are Jewish. I try and deliver insults that respect the targets religious convictions.
To be on the safe side, I just say, “I choose to insult you!” Knowing that someone of my character and judgement thinks little of them should be enough to leave them mortified. Then I spit in their coffee when they aren’t looking.Posted by on 10/24 at 12:51 PM
I remember a theory that when terms or euphemisms rapidly become insults and are replaced, then it indicates a subject that society is currently having trouble with. For example, the term “special” as it applies to children has quickly become an insult, so that we’re probably going to see a replacement for it soon.Posted by on 10/24 at 12:53 PM
The flipside of “moron”, of course, is to say something like, “way to go, Einstein”, the unstated premise being that science and math are the pinnacle of mental achievement. No one says, “way to go, Tolstoy” or “way to go, Heidegger”. So clearly there’s a naive view of human intelligence informing slurs like “moron” or “idiot”.
fwiw, I made a conscious effort to stop using such words, due mainly to an earlier post of yours, Michael.Posted by on 10/24 at 01:04 PM
One of things that’s interesting is that though the educational, medical, & psychological establishments keep coming up with new terms--trying to make these judgments about intelligence (and overall functioning) more clinical and “neutral”, the terms simple evolve into epithets. It’s a good example of the limits to social constructivism and the application of labeling theory to deviance. Sometimes the behavior is socially defined as deviant enough that no new word can change the norm. Not unlike the current GOP attempts to rebrand treason.
Anyone who has worked in school or institution for what are now called the “developmentally disabled” (certain more difficult to toss around as “imbecile” but still tossed by those in the know), knows that someone with an IQ of 40 can totally control an institutional staff that includes a fair number of PhDs and MDs.Posted by on 10/24 at 01:10 PM
larkspur - right on. I had to teach a lot of telecom classes for the former USWest, which had a corporate ‘pluralism’ policy. Some of our instructors had been banned from teaching there because they said things like ‘whiteboard’ and ‘black hole’ and ‘reverse polish notation’.
Anyway, I did almost get dinged for ‘rule of thumb’, but it was a good natured ribbing from people who had a sense of perspective. The funny thing is that I’ve heard other explanations of the idiom’s origin, including it being derived from “rule of plum” (as in a plum line) and referring to brewing beer (stick your thumb in to check the temp). No matter what, clearly the alleged original, literal meaning was not in my mind when I was discussing physical layer transmission issues.
Do people get confused today if you tell them you’re going to “show them the ropes”? Probably not. So why should people get bent out of shape when any idiom, no matter what its metaphoric origin, is used?
Somehow I’m now reminded of Star Trek IV…Posted by NTodd on 10/24 at 01:30 PM
The flipside of “moron”, of course, is to say something like, “way to go, Einstein”, the unstated premise being that science and math are the pinnacle of mental achievement.
I disagree there, Wittgenstein. Einstein just happens to be a well-known genius, whereas Tolstoy and Heidegger aren’t (except to maybe someone like me who was a Philo and Russian major!). Seen lots of posters of wild-haired Tolstoy sticking his tongue out in any dorm rooms lately?Posted by NTodd on 10/24 at 01:36 PM
I just use quantities (or fractions) of bags of hammers, myself. My wife, eager to assimilate my family’s ancestral culture, says of people “S/he is not the Sage of Vilna.”
Amusingly, I took to using “idiot” for self-deprecation ("And do you know why I did that? Because I’m an idiot.") after a couple of gay fellows warned me not to say “Because I suck.” Can’t win.Posted by on 10/24 at 01:37 PM
I think I disagree with you on this. Putting certain words “off limits” tends to give them extra power when they are used. The word “retard” is, in my view, on a cultural tipping point between being descriptive and being a generalized insult. Wouldn’t pushing it wholly over into “generalized insult” open the way for fresh descriptive terms that had less baggage?
I have a good friend who is blind. I have in anger asked sighted people “Are you blind?” and regretted it afterwards, but I don’t think the term “blind” is at the same point as “retarded,” (which got a big push into the insult caregory from its usage the movie Napoleon Dynamite.) In any event, “blind” can be an insult, but is not when used to describe my friend, who prefers that term to “visually impaired.” A lot of words need to be similarly gauged in the context in which they are used, and to try to put a few into some special category complicates that somewhat, because it makes them inherently bad, which is maybe hard on people who didn’t get the memo. Folks who use “retard” casually as an insult may be better intentioned and less hurtful than others who say descriptively, in a particular tone of voice, that someone is “special” or “challenged.”
I use the “F word” on occasion; I do not use but have heard the “N word.” Both have a lot of power in part because some people try so hard to ban or at least STRONGLY discourage them. Frequent and inconsistent uses would dilute their power to wound people, in my view. Though you might be fucking correct, it certainly bears thinking about.Posted by on 10/24 at 01:44 PM
Point well taken--in hurling the appropriate insult, one should distinguish between the capacity for rational thought and action, and the personal decision to actually utilize such capacity. A person who is empty-headed, incurious, unfeeling and/or mindless, capable only of thinking of accepted ideas in received ways, and unwilling to perceive his or her limitations, but who has the intellectual ability to be otherwise, is at fault. I have long referred to such individuals as “fuckheads,” although, now that I mention it, the term belittles both fucking and heads. Can’t win.Posted by on 10/24 at 01:53 PM
Michael-For this most useful of rhetorical tools:
How can I thank thee
Let count the ways
I know it’s not, you moron.Posted by on 10/24 at 01:59 PM
Your list of possible acceptable insults, ending with “miscreants”, reminded me of an old favorite, “cretin”.
Then I looked it up. Webster’s: “Cretinism. a condition associated with thyroid deficiency during early development, marked by physical deformaties and mental retardation.”
I’m embarrassed that I didn’t know it had such a specific clinical meaning. Etymologists and historians of science, is this another word that got pulled into clinical use in the late 19th - early 20th c.?Posted by on 10/24 at 02:31 PM
While “retarded” is an acceptable technical term, “retard” is never appropriate. It reduces the person in question to their handicap. This is not merely verbal sophistry. The first step to denying human rights is to deny someone’s humanity. Think of what is implied. A retarded human is necessarily human. What is a retard? Is it necessarily human? Make no mistake about it. The mentally handicapped and the mentally ill are in constant danger of being dehumanized. It would make things much, much cheaper if we didn’t have to treat them as human.Posted by on 10/24 at 02:40 PM
Ann: Putting certain words “off limits” tends to give them extra power when they are used. The word “retard” is, in my view, on a cultural tipping point between being descriptive and being a generalized insult. Wouldn’t pushing it wholly over into “generalized insult” open the way for fresh descriptive terms that had less baggage?
Hey Ann, you have a point. And weirdly enough, I actually don’t take umbrage at “retarded”—it seems indeterminate and generic to me, whereas “retard” always refers to an actual person. Anyway, even though my wife and I are retiring “idiot” for now (especially since those drivers were really maniacs!—thanks, jim), I don’t mean to put such terms utterly off limits. Really. I just want to point out, in a kind of classic “stupid proposal” kind of way, that people are throwing around these terms, shall we say, somewhat unreflectively.
And yeah, some of what I say about words denoting cognitive disability holds true for words denoting certain sex organs or sex workers. But suck? C’mon, Josh, “suck” is still fair game. As is “blow.”
But most of all, I hope I’ve helped to remind everyone of the vast range of possible insults out there. And thanks in return for all your further suggestions! Many of us are unthinkingly using “idiot” when “assclown” is clearly le mot juste.Posted by Michael on 10/24 at 02:51 PM
It’s like a Kierkegaardian repetition thing: some insulting epithets reach a saturation point where they no longer work, or are attenuated in force: the bimbo entering 101 traffic, fluffing up her ‘do, who swerves in front of you in her 450 SEL is not simply a bimbo, nor would “moron” work or “idiot” or Shakespearean lard (you “bawling, blasphemous cur”? I don’t think so) one must implement a southside or even vegas type of obscenity: “you nauseating excretion of slutmeat, move your pig whore azz out the f-n way ‘fore I terminate yr miserable skanky life” (yeah put it to memory)Posted by Mister Toad on 10/24 at 02:51 PM
You have started an interesting and enlightening discussion, Dr. Berube. Thanks. I intend to keep the ‘performance’ vs. ‘capacity’ idea in mind. I also intend to work “jackass-American” and “sheepfucking assmunch” into conversation at least once a day.Posted by on 10/24 at 04:02 PM
I agree wholeheartedly with Michael. The true art of verbal injury relies on accuracy, and it is as inaccurate to describe all assholes as idiots as it is unfair to insult people with disabilities in the process. In Spanish, the word ‘mudo’--which translates as ‘dumb’--is also used as a rough synonymous of moron, idiot, and imbecile. The Spanish word for ‘deaf’ is ‘sordo’, but in my native Guatemala most people refer to deafs as ‘sordomudos’ (and, of course, in a country like Guatemala, many deaf people don’t learn to speak). Anyway, my brother is completely deaf (but speaks Spanish quite wonderfully), and I developed a particular distaste for the word ‘mudo’ when used as an insult, and for the word ‘sordomudo’, when used to describe him.
I’m certainly not one to take etymology too seriously, but I remember reading somewhere--very likely a book by Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater--that the word idiot comes from the Greek idiotez (the same root as idiom, idiosyncrasy, and idiolect for example), which roughly meant disinterest in public affairs. The word imbecile, if I don’t remember incorrectly, came from the Latin imbecillis (becillis is the diminutive of baculum, which means… ‘walking stick’ I suppose--the word that comes to mind is the Spanish bastón). So an imbecile must have been a person who did not need a walking stick to walk, i.e. everyone who wasn’t a wise old fellow. Savater argued that somehow the word came to mean someone who did not rely on reasons to hold opinions, but that sounded a bit odd to me.
Anyway, this lurker is just in a talkative mood. Cheers.Posted by on 10/24 at 04:05 PM
I have a friend who has hypomania, and she winces at the word “maniac.” Everyone has unique sensitivites and insensitivities, that’s why I try to focus on (and urge others to focus on) intent wherever possible. I haven’t protested when Michael calls David Horowitz “D. Ho” even though whore and ho are words that bother me, because in context I know his intentions are okay. I definitely, like most people, think we all have great room for improvement of our clodlike tendencies, and it’s perfectly appropriate for people point to them out, as Michael has done so tactfully and nicely in this post. But my own view of freedom of speech, both legal and normative, resists vesting individual words with power exclusive of context.Posted by Ann Bartow on 10/24 at 04:15 PM
"I try and deliver insults that respect the targets religious convictions.”
“And weirdly enough, I actually don’t take umbrage at “retarded”—it seems indeterminate and generic to me, whereas “retard” always refers to an actual person.”
So I guess “Christ-tard” is completely out of the question? That’s going to be a hard one to resist, living as close as I do to Dover, PA.Posted by on 10/24 at 04:24 PM
I’ve noticed among the younger generation a shift towards inanimate-object insults, two of the most popular being “douchebag” and “tool” and/or “toolbox”.
Douchebag is making a strong move to becoming the epithet of choice among a whole segment of the population, but I like the straightforward descriptive “tool” even better.Posted by on 10/24 at 04:54 PM
I was getting a bit vexed until i read Ann’s last post; finally someone mentions that pesky amendment phrase. The anarchist in me recoils at the notion of word police, in that such acts are not so far removed from thought police and the restriction of cognitive liberties. Raised on Lenny Bruce and Ernie Kovacs, et al, i have always felt that the words i choose to use to express my feelings in any particular moment, whether toward others or myself, are mine to use as i please (and i intend them to be used context notwithstanding).
Thinking of Lenny (who sort of died for our word sins), there are still three word-phrases that never seem to be able to be used publicly in any context (no matter how often rappers and ranters stick them in their lyrics). Yesterday i had to do some research on bestiality laws (we don’t have one here. nor do 23 other states), and noticed that there are always laws against incest. Thus “motherfucker” retains a connotation of illegality and thereby, if used dysphemically, the utterer is liable for libel and slander (depending on context). “Cocksucker” on the other hand, banished by all censors, has been raised from the libel nightmare as states relax their anti-sodomy statutes. But to describe a woman with the base, and debasing, C-word that comes from ‘furrow in a fecund field’ is perhaps the worst of all possible public utterances.Posted by on 10/24 at 05:31 PM
The business about “rule of thumb” has been heavily debunked. I once got dinged in a journal review for using “rule of thumb” as a definition of “heuristic”. I did some research on origins of theterm and found several historical reviews that provided substantial counter-evidence. I resolved the issue by noting in a footnote that “rule of thumb” has sometimes been attributed to allowable limits on physical abuse, but noted the dissenting references.Posted by on 10/24 at 05:32 PM
One of my personal favorites, apparently used only in the St. Louis area, is “Hoosier” or “hoozsh” to describe something/someone that doesn’t match the speaker’s standards of class.
I.e., “I know you live in the Soulard, but honestly? Taping plastic over your broken-out car window is pretty hoozsh.”Posted by on 10/24 at 05:54 PM
"bastard” and “son of a bitch”—what’s parentage got to do with it? (Exception to the rule: the current President.)
Why is fucking bad?
What’s so wrong with an asshole? I’m sure glad I have one! (Peter Orlovsky’s great beat book: “Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs”—I gave my copy to a student I had a crush on in college; mistake!) (As if that would work!)
The newest ex-Mayor of Seattle was an ex-jock football player, hardnose millionaire developer, and idealistic liberal who let the WTO protests get out of hand from a mixture of idealism ("let a hundred protests bloom") and incompetence ("by not letting the police do their jobs,” until they get so pissed they start assaulting people themselves—not all the cops, but some of them, and the cops got a raw deal too). A reporter asked him afterwards if he were a wuss. the Mayor said, No. Headline next day, “Mayor Schell: ‘I Am Not a Wuss.’”
A friend and I started writing a musical (long since abandoned) about the WTO debacle (the protests were a BLAST, thank you very much—I didn’t get assaulted or teargassed directly). We didn’t get very far, but I did write a Gilbert & Sullivan -style number for the mayor character.
“I’m not a wuss, I’m not a pussy, I’m not a cunt, I’m not a vagina, I’m a dick!”
CHORUS: “He’s not a wuss, he’s not a pussy, he’s not a cunt, he’s not a vagina, he’s a dick.”
The executive editor of the paper defended the headline, saying that it referred to “pussycat,” not “pussy.” Well, he didn’t put it like that, but that was his gist.
What a jerk. (But what’s wrong with masturbation?)
My grandpa’s favorite insult to bad drivers: “You’re a pimple on the balls of humanity!”Posted by John on 10/24 at 06:00 PM
Lenny Bruce, though, were he still sentient would surely have reached the obscenity stage; I can’t imagine were the Lenster, like, watching Queen Maria (Duchess of Shriver-Schwarzenegger) cooing wih some galpals on MS-NBC in regards to a 12.5 million dollar bra now 4-sale at Victoria’s Secret, that he would not make use of “c*nt,” as in “look at dis mick c*nt, goin’ on about some diamond encrusted tits, and the fancy assed c*nt still has the nerve to call herself a democrat"… but yeah he’d do it a bit more eloquently.Posted by Mister Toad on 10/24 at 06:01 PM
May I make a recommendation?Posted by The One True Blogger on 10/24 at 06:52 PM
I hope that my new favorite term is OK: hoser. I adopted this term from the Canadians because it is quite strong, but I don’t wince when my children repeat it back to me. I also use “ass” for the same reason - no problem using the term for an animal, and only in my own head is the “hole” added on.Posted by on 10/24 at 07:02 PM
Josh’s ideas concerning “suck” are interesting—I think George Carlin had a routine on one of his early records in which he pondered the reasons that “fuck” is generally used in a violent or hurtful sense—“fuck you,” “go fuck yourself,” etc. He took this to its comical ends by suggesting that we use “fuck” instead of “kill,” and then acting out a Western—“We’re gonna take you out back, Sheriff, and then we’re gonna fuck ya real slow.”
People tell me I constantly use “douchebag.” I think I settled on this one early because it is inoffensive to any non-targeted group; while it has a distinctly gendered sense, I think the object itself, as a symbol of past patriarchal discourses of the female body being unclean, partial, etc., has been mostly disowned and therein is fair game.Posted by on 10/24 at 07:13 PM
Do we really think of someone with true mental disorders when we call someone an idiot or a moron?
I do admit that calling someone “retarded” could be implying this sort of stereotyping.
I was going to suggest adding the term “schmuck” to our non-stereotyping insult terms. But then I thought, is this now discriminatory against a man’s penis? When I think of the current crew occupying the White House, I am even more convinced that calling these people schumcks is insulting to a man’s penis.
I have to stop now before I get used to writing the word “penis.”
Damn.Posted by Mitchell Freedman on 10/24 at 07:32 PM
"Douchebag” might be suitable for east coast literati, but it’s a bit too sophisticated for us West Coast gangsta-types. The LA-type of insult is, alas, not so literary, and generally monosyllabic: Ho, Bitch (or byatch, byiotch, beech--used for both male or female), Cunt, Dyke, Trick, Punk, Punk-azz, and obvious racial stuff. Then those are enriched with modifiers or combined into colorful epithets: Greasy Byatch-azz Ho.
Mexican slang of course provides lots of ammo to Angelenos: Jota, Pinche Jota, Puta, Puto, Pinche Puto, Pendejo (guaranteed to piss off a paisa), Chingada, Culita, Maricon, etc. You might hear the two languages combined when some south-side vato is pissed: “Ey pinche puto, yo trick, I’m gonna waste yr greazy punk-azz.” For many g-sters that’s enough to constitute a lexicon.Posted by Mister Toad on 10/24 at 07:34 PM
You’re the best, Michael. I’ve retired idiot as well. If anything, it’s an insult to Dostoewsky, who doesn’t deserve to see one of his great creatures smeared by association with some of today’s most despicable knaves. When in doubt as to whether the actual jackass is worthy of a given epithet, one can always resort to a foreign language: nothing will piss off an asshole more than an ironic allusion to his monolingualism. Pendejo should work fine. Reserve hijo de la chingada for extreme cases of severe commitment to or belief in wingnut propaganda.Posted by Idelber on 10/24 at 08:32 PM
I was shamed out of words like “retard” as a child; my mother worked at a center for retarded adults, and I had an uncle who was developmentally disabled. I think my parents had it in for that word almost as much as they did for racist slurs.
Now, of course, I’m trying to shame my own son out of the word “idiot,” which I think he picks up from those goddamn Disney movies…Posted by bitchphd on 10/24 at 09:04 PM
Mister Toad - you wouldn’t want to comment on the intelligence of a poor driver, but insulting her based on a perceived link between her sexual proclivities and driving behaviour, that’s A-OK?
Michael’s points make sense, and have given me something to think about, but for a long time I’ve found outdated clinical terminology a whole lot less offensive than those that imply that because a femme is sexually active she is therefore automatically consigned to the Whore-of-Babylon File.Posted by on 10/25 at 12:42 AM
Interesting inferences, though not really justified. Where did I claim that women who are sexually active fall in the Whore-of-Bablyon category? They most assuredly are not. (tho if she’s driving a 450 SEL on the 101 she may be.) The point really was that Sir Berube’s terms seemed a bit more slanted to the masculine type of fool--and there’s no shortage of boobies, knaves, gulls, dolts, twits, y pendejos--but what about the feminine type? Bimbo seems a good place to start, or maybe floozie, broad, harridan, shrew.Posted by Mister Toad on 10/25 at 01:47 AM
Anyhoo I do apologize to the literary types if I offended. But Doc Berube initiated it. One last new or at least retrofitted obscenity that might be worth pursuing:
PISSFUCKER. It’s bit rash, to be sure, but would seem to have a certain androgynous utility. A few tentative sketches:
“Hey Pissfucker you deleted my post again.”
“Yo Miss Pissfucker your attempts at reading Zizek aren’t worth, well, piss.”Posted by Mister Toad on 10/25 at 02:24 AM
I went to an elementary school that was next to (on the same campus) as the “special elementary” school that served the entire school district. It was a small-ish town, with perhaps a hundred or so “special ed” kids. We called the kids who were in special education “speds.” It was a highly derogative term, we would call other kids speds who were not in the special education school when we wanted to heap scorn upon them. This was before special education kids were “mainstreamed” and allowed to attend school with us “normal” kids. The “mainstreaming” process, in my experience, has generally worked, the occasional bad experience or situaion aside. I use scare quotes only to denote that the language surrounding this issue is less than perfect. Putting young kids (or kids or adults of any age) with disabilities together with other people seems like the right thing to do for a variety of reasons that improve the lives of everyone involved.
In any event, I used the term “sped” at home as a youngster, and my parents asked me what I meant. When I told them, well...all hell broke loose, and for good reason. Guilt and shame are not bad things to experience as a young person, especially when your loving parents inform you that you are being very stupid and very mean, and they are correct. Both of my parents were teachers, and the idea that I would use a term like “sped” upset and, honestly, ashamed them. I learned that lesson rather quick, and it was a good one.
I personally like the word “fucktard,” but I don’t use it. It is, obviously, related to the word “retarded.” Retardation is a fact of life, and people are retarded, and that is that. It (and I am not being pious here, just honest), is rather simple, unimaginative, and insulting to not be able to find a better word to describe the moral or intellectual shortcomings of your chosen opponent if you use any term that has the syllable “tard” in it. I still do it when I am lazy, but it doesn’t make me all that smart or proud.
Stupid is a good word. It conveys just what it needs to, without anying else. The moral and intellectual culpability shines through, and no one calls someone else stupid unless he or she means it because it is an incredibly insulting word. So, I suggest that anyone who is tempted to use a congintively-laden term to describe someone simply insert the word “stupid.” If it fits, use the word stupid. If it doesn’t, re-think your point.
I love this blog, by the way, and I am done.Posted by on 10/25 at 03:38 AM
Mister - sorry didn’t mean to hold you alone responsible for a form of insult I find offensive! Only making the point that referring to women who are demonstrating a lack of intelligence using terms such as slut, whore, etc offends me, as how women use their sexuality has too often determinined their social standing. Whereas for men, stud would apparently be a compliment.Posted by on 10/25 at 06:00 AM
I suppose I shall weight in. I prefer half-wit, a traditional epithet. Dope works as well for me. When I am really pissed off, shit for brains is the rhetorical blow of choice. At wit’s end, I simply use the word asshole. I’ve found myself using that more and more since last November.Posted by on 10/25 at 06:28 AM
This is way off your subject, but I thought you’d want to know what your blog is worth: $351,708.42
Pay off your house maybe?
Trust fund, perhaps?
Congrats!Posted by on 10/25 at 06:46 AM
“Cretin” goes much further back than the 19th century. See here:
for the history (scroll down about half way), which is pretty interesting in itself.Posted by on 10/25 at 07:08 AM
The word “retard” is also banned in our house and this extends to my kids’ friends when they’re around. The funniest moment I can recall is when a bunch of my older son’s friends were playing Nintendo with Russell, who has Down syndrome, when he suddenly yelled at one of them, “What are you, a retard?” They looked at me helplessly as I reminded Russell that “we don’t use that word in our house.” “Oh, sorry,” he says.
Because I mostly lurk I know that nobody will have noticed I was away but I just returned from the Frankfurt Book Fair where I was for a week. It was a great trip, and although I was busy, I missed my daily dose of this blog and am glad to be back.Posted by on 10/25 at 08:57 AM
learned while reading arendt’s _the human condition_: “idiot” derives from ancient greek “idiotes,” which refers to a person who lives wholly in the private realm, outside of the polis. socratees, for instance, was an idiotPosted by on 10/25 at 09:54 AM
Actually, “idiotes” in the Greek refers to one who has the ability and capacity to participate in public but chooses not to, which is slightly different. And in that context should give us some pause when we think about the boom in “Idiot’s” Guides to things like “public speaking” (which never reference the “public"), or “Citizenship” (which focuses only on naturalization processes), or “Democracy” (which only features 3 of some 400 pages on what what democratic action—apart from voting—might be).Posted by on 10/25 at 10:13 AM
Personally I find “shithead” covers all the territory. There are the hipster putdowns--"lame," “jiveass"--but their applicability is much more limited, while good old “shithead” never misses the mark.Posted by on 10/25 at 11:14 AM
Another interesting combinatorial method for generating insults is the “container” obscenity. In spanglish you hear “tu pedazo de mierda” or even just “pedazo”; via ingles, that is “piece of shit,” a quite effective verbal jab: “Get out of my vehicle, you grovelling piece of shit.” And modifiable: Sack of shit, or even Shit-sack-- piece of dirt, dirtbag, piece of filth, bag of shit, slutbag, scumbag, etc. The “bag” or “piece” or “sack” seems to sort of amplify the effect. “Scumbag” in fact a traditional fave.Posted by Mister Toad on 10/25 at 12:29 PM
Sorry to be weighing in late and sorrier that it’s on this point, but: Am I the only one who’s been surprised that several here don’t know a) what a douchebag is and b) why its use (as an insult, that is) might be inappropriate?Posted by on 10/25 at 12:52 PM
"Douchebag"--it’s the container in which water and cleansing materials are mixed before being sprayed into the vagina foor “hygiene"--is, I think, an insult because female genitals are regarded as nasty and degrading. Thus “cunt” as an insult when applied to men OR women. George Carlin’s thought experiment on replacing “kill” with “fuck” should be supplemented by a reading of the recent Human Rights Watch report on torture in Iraq (published in the NY Review of Books) according to which abusing a prisoner ("person under confinement") was called “fucking a PUC.” In men’s prisons, where gender is pared down to the essentials of power, “Men” penetrate, “Punks” are penetrated, and social mobility is one way only--being penetrated just once makes you a Punk forever. Whence also the objectionableness of “suck” or “blow,” which are insulting because *only subordinate people*--women, homosexuals--do that.
As Michael’s original, excellent post implies, it’s hardly surprising that the lingo of insult should reflect and highlight familiar inequalities and injustices and cruelties, and the reason to avoid using this lingo isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a grudging acquiescence in Political Correctness but a humane, democratic rejection of the injustice this lingo expresses and reproduces.Posted by on 10/25 at 01:32 PM
Bravo! First time reader here directed from McSweeny’s.Posted by Erik Axdahl on 10/25 at 02:16 PM
Great post, Michael.
I for one wish “cocksucker” wasn’t homophobic and/or sexist, because its repeated use on Deadwood is one of my favorite things about that show. I didn’t think any kind of insult/curse could give me that “ooh, that’s so bad!” thrill again. It was like discovering a rollercoaster that actually scared me. Anyway, I’d love to pay homage to show by incorporating it into my language, but I find its meaning too truly offensive.
And thanks, Rich (the other one), for debunking the “rule of thumb” myth. Was H. A. Kelly one of the scholars you read on the subject—I think I recall he had an article on that.
I wonder if some of the insults that have lost their offensiveness do so not only because people have forgotten their meaning, but because the group which they would’ve originally kept subordinate have since gained social/cultural power. Irish insults belong in this group, I think—things like “paddy wagon,” for instance.Posted by Quod She (TF) on 10/25 at 06:20 PM
But to describe a woman with the base, and debasing, C-word that comes from ‘furrow in a fecund field’ is perhaps the worst of all possible public utterances.
hmmm, I always thought it was an acronym:
Can’t Understand Normal Thinking
i kid, i kid!Posted by on 10/25 at 07:11 PM
Several? Didn’t my comment already imply what a douchebag was? “a symbol of past patriarchal discourses of the female body being unclean, partial, etc.”Posted by on 10/26 at 12:04 AM
Greg J, I miscounted. Not several but one or two, far’s I can tell.
Que es mas macho, douchebag o toolbox?Posted by on 10/26 at 01:14 AM
Goat Ball Licker!*
1) Sounds pretty offensive - I can’t imagine how to spin it into something good.
2) It doesn’t offend anybody based on real or perceived abilities.
3) I hope its not a real profession.
* from Daily Show coverage of the Democratic National ConventionPosted by on 10/26 at 07:29 AM
"In men’s prisons, where gender is pared down to the essentials of power, “Men” penetrate, “Punks” are penetrated, and social mobility is one way only--being penetrated just once makes you a Punk forever.”
Yes, in the street or prison, obscene slang functions as a sort of territoriality: most gangstas have a term (as well as a handshake and tats) to indicate their own brotherhood and then a few terms which demarcate them from the weak, or nerdy or the “lames”. Many caucasian criminals/inmates of California refer to themselves as “peckerwood” or “wood” for short; and then along with being a “wood” there are some associated tats, as well as certain, uh, perspectives the “wood” is expected to assume: generally a virulent racism (and of course the the racial epithets of whatever gang serve to further define the group/faction), enthusiasm for methamphetamine, the metal or country music, perhaps Harleys etc. This might seem a bit obvious but I do think the slang and insults work as a type of group code, a type of priviledged syntax, for gangs, as a “thieves jargon” has always done so. If a “wood” or crip or ese says “Chavo’s a straight- up Punk” everyone knows what it means; Chavo has been marked, nearly as much as if he had a Star of David pinned on his CDC suit, and it’s not really subject to debate.
Ambrose Bierce termed slang “the grunt of the human hog” yet it is only in the rarified context of the academy (or the sheltered leafy enclaves surrounding the academies) that slang and insults and obscenity are not incessantly heard and made use of.Posted by Mister Toad on 10/26 at 12:00 PM
and the word that best describes the following state of mind?
“""What’s happening? Is the man so insulated from the reality of events that he has come to believe his administration’s propaganda? Or is there a more ominous and pervasive problem that calls into question something other than political ideology, that is influenced by a world view marked by an inability to reason logically and learn from experience?
The ability to reason accurately is not randomly distributed; some people are better at it than others. Though this is only one form of intelligence, it is an important one, and the lack of it tends to have adverse consequences on one’s chances for success at tasks that require good decision-making.
While reason affects our beliefs, the process of correctly perceiving how the world works requires an understanding of the scientific method, and is fundamentally different from religious or philosophical inquiries that are concerned with questions of meaning and faith. When the two ways of thinking become confused, as in the controversy over evolution and “intelligent design,” we are engaging in a kind of dialogue of the deaf in which scientific theory is pitted against religious belief."""
also i was curious about how we accept the following titles--in that they do represent all that we are trying to tie together here:
Idiot’s Guide to the SAT/GRE Exams!
Public Speaking for Dummies!Posted by on 10/26 at 01:33 PM
Are the deaf people in question wearing blindfolds and mittens?Posted by on 10/26 at 02:26 PM
“If you truly believe that someone is acting unwisely or thinking incompetently, you can draw upon thousands of words that speak about performance rather than capacity, which is far more appropriate anyway”
This is almost true. I think the insult process is again more a matter of affixing a sign or button to, well, the Other, than it is some reasonable assessment. Not to indulge in the naturalist mode much longer but the insult works more like, say, a baboon’s bark than as some type of semantics (there is something not trivial as well as unpleasant in your post but only a few people are really getting it, like rootlesscosmo); or that is to say the insult branding process (especially in terms of obscenity and “street speak") may indicate a type of animality--perhaps the Nietzschean herd mind, if not more Darwinian types of group identification-- which literary types too often gloss over in favor of addressong irony or wit, rhetoric etc.Posted by Mister Toad on 10/26 at 03:22 PM
Just making sure, Catherine. Apparently I pride myself on the knowledge of outdated patriarchal products.Posted by on 10/26 at 10:30 PM
Lots of good suggestions for neutral insults here.
The vast shit- or ass-related collection, unfortunately, generally imply more of a malevolent act and less of an incompetent act, and there are plenty of occasions when the latter is what needs response. “Assclown” being the exception.
I’m a fan of “tool,” as serving the purpose of “idiot,” etc, with the useful implication of being deceived by ideology rather than some kind of natural state.
I can’t stop using “suck,” even though I can’t justify it.
And I don’t see what’s wrong with “douchebag.” It doesn’t, at least to me, carry a specifically feminine implication like “bitch” or “cunt,” just the connotation of ‘between the thighs = dirty.’ I know a few people who say “colostomy bag,” which is fine but a mouthfull. If there was such a thing as a “penisbag,” that would be an insult too… in fact, there’s no reason I have to wait to start using the term. Ok, new insult created.Posted by on 10/26 at 11:04 PM
I’ve found shitwaffle to be fairly effective, especially because of the confused looks, followed by smirks, upon its deployement. From the experience, I have concluded at that a good insult is slighty baffling, so the recipent thinks, “What the fuck did that mean?”. This is obviously more insulting, because it insults their intelligence, while calling them a common breakfast food, composed of shit.Posted by on 10/27 at 10:08 AM
Given that, as you say, idiot was a general purpose insult before it was a clinical term, can’t we keep it? Unlike retard, which is a clear case of a word that was originally clinical/technical before it became an insult - like spastic, mongoloid, etc - all of which should be retired.
The trouble here is really that we have two angles of approach: first, that we can insult someone by calling them ‘person of low intelligence’ - idiot, fool, gull, chump, jackass etc. - and second, that we shouldn’t use words that mean ‘person of low intelligence’ as insults.
I’m pretty sure, incidentally, that ‘poltroon’ means coward, not fool.Posted by on 10/27 at 11:04 AM
Michael, this misadministration has addressed the very problem you raise in your post.
Tired of moron? Use Feith instead. (The capital F will become optional with prolonged usage.)
Tired of asshole? What’s wrong with Frum?
Tired of cocksucking son of a bitch? Cheney!
Brain dead retard? Bush!Posted by on 10/28 at 12:49 AM
Ajay, a poltroon is an especially base, craven coward. Also, it sounds cool. And Jay, suggesting that Feith and Bush are cognitively impaired kinda runs counter to the very spirit of the post, you know. Personally, I think they’re men of ordinary intelligence who have really bad ideas. And in one case, a nasty temper, too.Posted by Michael on 10/28 at 07:37 AM
"Pedant”Posted by SpoonFighter on 10/28 at 12:34 PM
Oh, great. Now I’ve got the Pink Panther Theme going through my head.Posted by Chris Clarke on 10/28 at 02:58 PM
I especially appreciate the distinction in the above discussion (circa comment #60) of Socrates and the etymology of “idiot” as implying a *choice* not to participate in the public sphere. The problem seems to be that we have an un-chosen subject position being installed as the vehicle in a metaphorical relationship whose purpose (at least sometimes) is to launch a critique of ignorance, or of the devaluing of knowledge; a trend that has been exhaustively illustrated by the current administration.
Since I think we really need to retain any available tools for critiquing ignorance--which helpfully fits the category of “practices” rather than that of “identities"--I would be interested in figuring out how we might restructure this mode of critique itself in such a way as to debase the first term without acting out an equal and opposite violence on the term being used for that debasement (e.g. criticizing President Bush by calling him an “idiot” is an insult to any referent of the term “idiot").
Or maybe it’s just that reducing critique to the micro-level of insult is politically untenable?Posted by on 10/28 at 04:58 PM
Pink Panther is Plas Johnson. Find some and give a listen. The man is just marvelous. Especially if you like guys like Paul Desmond or Sonny Criss.Posted by on 10/28 at 09:21 PM
"A century ago, “Mongoloid idiot,” for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.”
Given my nearly 70 years of life, I would adjust that ‘a century ago’ way downward; to at least as recently as the 1950s.Posted by on 10/30 at 01:05 PM
B. Behan asked his dad about the irish patriot on the way to the scaffold who excoriated the dublin people as “ bellowing slaves and genteel dastards,”, saying “Hey, dad, they censored him! He said ‘bastards’, didn’t he?”
“No, son. To be a bastard can happen to anybody, but to be a dastard you have to work at it.”
And what’s wrong with Johnson’s “Your mother, sir, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods!”Posted by Chris B on 10/30 at 09:54 PM
Firstly, that “rule of thumb” story is apparently garbage. See http://www.canlaw.com/rights/thumbrul.htm. This is often the problem with these kinds of things - all kinds of ridiculous false etymologies become the basis for forbidding use of perfectly ordinary phrases.
Beyond this, a couple of points. While the words “idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” may have, at one time, designated specific clinical conditions, they do not anymore. These terms have been abolished from scientific discourse. Beyond this, “Idiot” and “Imbecile,” at least, have long histories as words from long before the existence of modern psychology. The OED definitions of both of these words fail to mention their brief tenure as clinical term (moron, having originated as a clinical term, does get this definition mentioned). Why should perfectly good words, with long histories going back to Middle English, be banned because of a short-lived tendency to use them as clinical terms? They are not used or understood in this sense by most people, and they did not even originate as meaning this. For the terms imbecile and idiot, at least, there seems to be some reverse causality here - these terms were abandoned as clinical terms because they were already generalized insults long before they became clinical terms. TTo now ban them as generalized insults seems oddly perverse.
A second point is that it seems to be part of humanity’s natural cruelty that whatever word is used to describe the mentally disabled will very quickly become a schoolyard insult. It doesn’t seem to make any difference what that term is - “retarded” was supposed to be a more polite term than the old “moron,” “idiot,” and “imbecile.” But it quickly became appropriated as an insult. Then “special” or whatever, which was almost immediately seized upon. The basic issue seems to be that children like to insult other children by comparing them to mentally disabled children. This is deeply unfortunate, but banning particular words isn’t going to help with this. The current system seems designed simply to increase the vocabulary of words that will be used as insults, because eventually every halfway appropriate term in the English language is going to be tried out as a term to refer to the mentally retarded, and will (shockingly enough) be discovered to have been turned into an insult by mean kids, rendering it no longer appropriate. I’m not sure what the solution to this is, but I’m pretty sure that banning the word “idiot” will do little to solve this question.Posted by on 10/31 at 02:32 AM
The derivation of “poltroon” relates it to “chicken.” Just thought I’d mention it.
I like “jerk” more than ever, following the day I determined that it meant (as #39 seems to allude) to someone who has gone feeble-minded as a result of exessive masturbation. “Creep,” I believe, was someone who went around looking in windows. Alas, my once-fine mind no longer tells me what the term was for someone who snarfs (that is, who farts in the bathtub and bites the bubbles).
Ah, the romance of terms that have made it into normal conversation after their original meanings are forgotten.
Then there’s the line from “Prejudice!”, the game show on a Monty Python episode, where they had a contest for nasty things to call the Belgians, and a reader suggested that the nastiest thing we could do was to keep on calling them Belgians. Take that, Leopold!Posted by on 10/31 at 04:21 PM
- Posted by on 11/03 at 09:33 AM
Easy for you to say.Posted by Michael on 11/03 at 07:07 PM
nice work according to the ambrose law.Posted by Ambrose Law Group on 09/28 at 06:50 AM