Radio 4's 'PM' programme get in touch today to ask for a comment about insult language. Apparently an Iranian minister has described the British as 'not human' and 'a bunch of thick people', eliciting an angry response from our ambassador out there. What did I think about it?
My first thought was that the minister wasn't trying. What an unimaginative pair of insults! The English language has an excellent insult record. He would have done better to look up some Early Scots examples of flyting (insult exchanges) or taken some lines from Shakespeare. He could have used one of those online Shakespeare insult generators which combine real examples into new strings, such as 'villainous reeling-ripe deformed clapper-clawed hornbeasts'. That would have been much more impressive.
I find political insults interesting as an illustration of language change. They invariably reflect situations of conflict or unequal power relations between peoples (as when colonial masters describe those they have subjugated or indigenous majorities talk about immigrant minorities). What intrigues me is their longevity, or lack of it. Most are likely to be temporary, going out of use when political relations change, but some gain a permanent place in the language. Many of the following examples are either unknown today or have lost their sting. A few are still with us, with usage wavering depending on the sensitivities of the users to political correctness.
The 17th-century conflicts with the Dutch were the original stimulus for dozens of expressions, such as a Dutch widow (a prostitute), a Dutch auction (where the prices are initially high), a Dutch reckoning (a lump sum without a detailed breakdown), a Dutch concert (several tunes played together), a Dutch bargain (made in drink), and a Dutch feast (where the host gets drunk before the guests do). I could go on - Dutch courage, double Dutch, Dutch comfort... Similar lists could be compiled about the Germans, the French, and so on, depending on the point in history when they were enemies. Analogous expressions circulated about the English in the other languages, of course.
But one generations's insults can be the next generation's orthodoxy. In the 17th century, a Tory was a really offensive term - a type of Irish bandit or outlaw. The name came to be applied to those who in 1679-80 supported the exclusion of a Catholic James to the English throne. And gradually it entered the political mainstream. Of course, depending on your political allegiance, you might still consider it an insult.
(If you're thinking of listening to the item, don't bother. It was dropped, as a dead donkey. That's often the way, with newsy language topics. They tend to be placed at the very end of a programme, viewed as light-hearted pieces whose role is to fill a minute or two after the 'serious' items are over. They are therefore prime candidates for being cut, when other items over-run or something more important crops up. For every one piece I've done on the radio, another has been dropped in this way.)