Archaic Speech for Dummies III - Selecting Insults
A Lesson by Anthony Hart-Jones
In which you learn how to pick the right insult for the situation.
Last time, we continued learning about archaic speech. It was another very patronising lesson, but you just keep coming back…
This week, we will learn a little about insults, so let’s put a warning in. Only continue reading if you are sure that you want to learn about insulting people…
Still here? Good. Let’s start with a basic statement; archaic insults should be light and witty, aimed at ambiguous parentage and personal failings, rather than hurling the names of a lady’s anatomy at them. Of course, it is permissible to tell a peasant that he has the odour and aspect of a dung heap, but you would not want to insult a noble so coarsely.
A good insult is one that obeys the rules of escalation; ‘pox-ridden cur’ is insinuating that they suffer from venereal diseases and that they are a mangy dog, making it a good follow up to a lesser insult like ‘addle-pated fop’ and a precursor to the stronger ‘witless w***e-son’. The final reply is usually striking the other person, which is an invitation to duel.
The best kind of insult is witty and may even pass for a compliment long enough that you will be thanked for it. “I am afraid that you must think less of me for that outburst, my lady.” / “Sirrah, I swear that nothing you do could make me think any less of you…”
To truly perfect it requires practice, but few of us would be able to call someone in the office a ‘scabrous wretch’ with a straight face, even if they did eat the last doughnut. Instead, we might seek to emulate someone with more practice. In fact, you would do well to find a copy of Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and maybe even (if you wanted to insult some high society) a copy of Richard Brindsley Sherridan’s ‘School for Scandal’.
Just remember that certain people are sensitive and some people are actually legally protected from being insulted by those of low birth. As an example of the worst case; insulting a noble’s lineage is a good way to start a duel, insulting the crown prince’s is a surefire path to finding yourself dragged into a dungeon. In certain situations, you may even be arrested and (depending on your status) executed whether you know whop the other person was or not. In Roger Zelazny’s ‘Nine Princes in Amber’, for instance, one of the princes tries to shoot a commoner just for a minor insult toward his brother. To a prince, it was a normal and justified reaction.
This wraps up my trio of lessons in archaic speech. It's not meant to be in-depth, just a starting point, but I hope you found it helpful.