Thursday 12 August 2010

On insulting Brits

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.)


mollymooly said...

You've got your reclaimed insults crossed: the Tories supported James; it was the Whig(gamore)s who opposed him.

DC said...

Oops. sorry, yes.

Sarah said...

Tory for me will always be an insult!

Much insult is metaphor, and the interesting thing for me is how there are hierarchies of insulting metaphors, often rather baffling to a foreigner.

For example calling someone a camel is rude in French, but calling them a type of camel is much ruder.

R A Harless said...

I find studying the insults of a culture to be very interesting. In the songs of the multi-nationalitied band Gogol Bordello, the insult that someone's finger is crooked is used several times as well as "his wife has acne and his children cry."

Sarah said...

That's almost in the "your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries" league!

Annie said...

What seemed just an exaggerated stereotype for the British people now sounds rather an insult to me. Namely, the three attributes you'll surely find in school manuals and textbooks here in Armenia - that the British people are "cool, reserved, conservative", and yes, "it rains abnormally out of the blue every other hour in their land!".

After having met several of those British people out of the textbooks live, I wish those three insulting words will be erased and substituted for "warm, very honest, benevolent, full of royal simplicity and grace".

It's not such a fault to be cool, reserved, conservative, of course, but the negative connotation with which they are used in reference to the British people is dismissive.

My tutor used to call me a "cold-blooded Brit". Because she demanded I should show off some extra enthusiasm and thrill while talking on any of the topics required for the university admission oral examination in English, to get a high mark, as she said.

I didn't get a very high mark, I don't know, maybe because of my seeming coldness and natural introvertness - but surely, these are not British qualities and sound insulting to be dismissively attributed to such a gentle nation!

KateGladstone said...

"a Dutch auction (where the prices are initially high)"

In the USA, a "Dutch auction" is instead an auction where the lots may each comprise more than one item, with bidders permitted to bid for more than one item from each lot.