Wherever the civilised English gather to discuss the state we’re in, it is almost axiomatic to allow that we’re getting less refined. Discourse, public and private, is (we tell each other) getting cruder; wit is duller; our culture is dumbing down. A vulgarity and obviousness is gaining ground over the art of delicate suggestion. Nowhere do we assume this to be truer than in the use of language for the purposes of discourtesy.
Twenty years ago, when I first began putting together an anthology of insult and abuse, I would have subscribed to this view. The book was to be called Scorn and as we began combing through literature ancient and modern for the best ripostes and put-downs, and the best examples, too, of sustained invective from every age, we looked forward to encountering the cleverness of our ancestors.
Among the ancient Greeks (I thought) would be found a sophistication in the use of language that even Tudor England could hardly match. Then would come Shakespeare, who would outshine his successors, if not his predecessors, in wit. Though I did know that the 18th century had produced a minor flowering in the elegant use of language, it never struck me that this would have been sustained into the 19th and 20th centuries, let alone the 21st.
I could not have been more wrong. We have just published the fourth edition of Scorn. Each has built upon the last, so that most survives from first to last, but a gap of about a decade before our 21st-century edition has allowed us to add thousands of new entries. Each time I’ve updated, the story has been the same. We’re getting more sophisticated.
The stiletto is gaining ground over the club. Subtlety in the use of English to sneer, decry or wound is on the increase. We are not getting more primitive, and we never were.
Take my fellow columnist Alan Watkins for example: ‘Having a conversation with Mr Mandelson was rather like walking downstairs and missing the last step. You were uninjured but remained disconcerted.’ Not only is this deliciously accurate, it is beautifully — and so delicately — expressed. P.J. O’Rourke on Hillary Clinton, ‘Every American’s first wife’, is harsher, yet equally subtle.
Compare these with, ‘Cosmus Equitiaes magnus cinaedus et fellator est suris apertis’ found scrawled in Pompeii, and roughly translated ‘Equitias’s slave Cosmus is a big queer and a cocksucker with his legs wide open’. Classical learning should not distract us from the distinctly unlearned nature of what we translate. Modern China seems to emulate the Romans: the Chinese government description of the then Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten — ‘A tango dancer who’s opened his legs to President Clinton’ — has a Pompeiian ring.
Chris himself (or the cleric he reports) has been anything but: ‘Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being pecked to death by ducks’.
Could the Ancients, or even Shakespeare, have easily matched our contemporary Mamie Van Doren on Warren Beatty: ‘He’s the kind of man who will end up dying in his own arms,’ or the 20th-century song lyric on (it is said) Mick Jagger — ‘You’re so vain you probably think this song is about you’ — or, indeed, Joan Rivers on Mick Jagger — ‘This man has child-bearing lips’? The evidence is thin.
Hieroglyphs, it is true, may not lend themselves easily to nuanced speech, but confidence that the Ancient Egyptians were fluent in nuance is hardly bolstered by the oldest insult I’ve been able to print: an Egyptian comic strip, with pictures and speech bubbles, in which two fishermen are fighting and the one wielding a spear shouts ‘Come ’ere you f***er’. Academics have translated the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘f***er’ (an erect penis) as ‘copulator’.
With my assistant editor, Tom Mitchelson (who used to write many of Ned Sherrin’s monologues and knows a bit about elegant insult), I returned with relief to 21st-century scorn, and the late Linda Smith: ‘Erith isn’t twinned with anywhere, but it does have a suicide pact with Dagenham.’ Something of the Ancients, however, survives in recent exchanges between Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway: the former calling the latter a ‘Ba’athist, short-arsed, sub-Leninist, East End carpet-bagger’, and Galloway calling Hitchens a ‘drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay’, as well as (more cleverly) someone who ‘made natural history by metamorphosing from a butterfly into a slug’. Mr Hitchens himself raises the level of the wit when he turns to Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, ‘Yes we can’: the sort of thing, he said, ‘parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training’.
Which takes us back to a less elegant poem written by Martial in the 1st century ad: ‘Zoile, quid solium subluto podice perdis? Spurcius ut fiat, Zoile, merge caput,’ which Richard O’Connell translates: ‘Zoilus, if you want to pollute the bathing space/ Don’t stick in your arse first, stick in your face.’ Again, not without wit, but lacking variety in its resources. Risking Boris’s wrath, I’m almost persuaded that Stephen Leacock in Homer and Humbug, was right: ‘The classics are only primitive literature. They belong in the same class as primitive machinery and primitive music and primitive medicine.’
Shakespearian insult, to my surprise, is at least as close to the Ancients as to the less head-butting invective of Pope, Dryden and Samuel Johnson. You could fill a book (others have) with the playwright’s gloriously crude heavy-shelling — ‘Thou drone, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot…’; ‘leathern-jerkin, crystal-button, not-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter, smooth-tongue Spanish pouch!’ — yet hardly approach the cruel delicacy of Fred Allen — ‘To a newspaperman, a human being is an item with skin wrapped around it’ — or the wry Doug Larson: ‘Never doubt the courage of the French. They are the ones who discovered snails are edible.’ For the French, Nicolas Sarkozy does not distinguish himself with the elegance of his riposte to a man in a crowd who declined to shake hands with him: ‘Drop dead, you little cretin.’
So perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps we don’t change, and ‘drop dead, you little cretin’ is all we’ve ever really wanted to say. Perhaps it’s simply that the passage of centuries and the change of language blurs and finally filters from the record the intricacies of nuance and irony, leaving only the essential. As an anonymous Pompeiian put it all those years ago: ‘Imanis metula es’ — or ‘You’re a big prick’.
Scorn — The Anthology, Updated for a New Century is published by Max Press, Little Books (£10.99).