Sunday 11 January 2015

On the art of insulting people

My daughter and I are nearing the end of our epic reading of The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris. I was quite surprised and impressed by how closely the plot stuck to the Nordic mythologies. We have got to the flyting, the battle of ritualized abuse between Loki and his fellow gods in Asgard, in which he says things like:
You need to get some beauty sleep. You're getting wrinkles. And don't drink so much beer tonight. You know it makes you fart in bed.(1)
The Scandinavians attributed the invention of this tradition of hurling insults at people to Loki, then engaged in it with gusto. I've often wondered how much of our own traditions of slagging people off come from the same source. My daughter found Loki's performance impressive as it was reported in Joanne Harris's novel, but I grew up on a steady diet of Red Dwarf, filled with such carefully crafted abuse as:
Mister Arnold" isn't his name. His name's "Rimmer." Or "Smeghead." Or "Dinosaur Breath" or "Molecule Mind." And on a really special occasion when you want to be really mega-polite to him, Kryten, we're talking MEGA-polite, in those exceptional circumstances, you can call him "Arse-hole.(2)
And at the local pantomime the other night, the baddy addressed us, the audience, as 'squirrel sick' among other things (3). It is true that we had systematically addressed her as 'booooooooo!' since the moment she first walked on stage. All in all, I thought Joanne Harris's Loki was a bit restrained.

Incidentally, in the light of current affairs, it's interesting that the Arabic traditions are quite as heavily laden in satire as the Western ones. Apart from prose, there is a long tradition of satirical poetry called hija, along with poetic traditions of bragging (fahkr) and insulting (naqa'id). Much to my disappointment I couldn't find many translations, but let it be recorded for posterity that:
Abu Sa'd, old bag,
who whores with his sister and his wife,
If you saw him bending over,
you would think he is the arch of a bridge;
Or if you saw the prick in his arse,
you would say: 'a leg in the stocks.' (4)
I don't suppose anyone is going to claim this stuff isn't coarse and puerile but it's a laugh innit. Even the Americans are in on the act. I'm in the mood to dedicate this next one to jihadists everywhere:
You're a mean one Mr. Grinch Jihadi
You really are a heel.
You're as cuddly as a cactus,
And as charming as an eel,
Mr. Grinch Jihadi!
You're a bad banana,
With a greasy black peel!
You're a monster, Mr. Grinch Jihadi!
Your heart's an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders.
You've got garlic in your soul,
Mr. Grinch Jihadi!
I wouldn't touch you
With a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole! (5)
SO THERE! And think yourself lucky I don't have Photoshop or they'd be a suitably balaclavaed and AK-toting Grinch up there as well! (blows raspberry).

Actually, I've never done any writing in this vein myself and I don't suppose it's easy*. It has to fit plausibly with the characters and the story, then you have to pick the level of outrage you want to achieve and the targets you want to reach. Should you want to veer on the side of political correctness, you really have to make your insults up from scratch which requires poetic talent and immense creativity.

* Then again, my main character is supposed to have her foot in her mouth just about every time she opens it, in sharp contrast with the way she actually thinks as revealed in the narration, or speaks when she's telling stories. It's been fun to create that aspect of her but quite technical. I actually highlighted all her parts of the dialogue throughout the whole novel and tweaked till I got the effect I wanted.

UPDATE: The very day after I posted this, the Guardian printed an in-depth article on satire in the Muslim world, put together by multiple authors. An excellent piece and a good starting point for more research.


1. The Gospel of Loki, Joanne Harris, Orion Books, 2014, p226
2. Red Dwarf Series II: Kryten, Grant Naylor, 1988
3. Beauty and the Beast, Pantomime at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, 2014-2015
4. The Bad and the Ugly: Attitudes Towards Invective Poetry (Hija) in Classical Arabic Literature, G.J.H. van Gelder, Brill Archive, 1988, p.39
5. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Chuck Jones, 1966, (animation adapted from the book by Dr Seuss)

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