An insult is an expression or statement (or sometimes behavior) which is disrespectful or scornful. Insults may be intentional or accidental.[1] An insult may be factual, but at the same time pejorative, such as the word "inbred".[2]

Jocular exchange

Lacan considered insults a primary form of social interaction, central to the imaginary order – "a situation that is symbolised in the 'Yah-boo, so are you' of the transitivist quarrel, the original form of aggressive communication".[3]

Erving Goffman points out that every "crack or remark set up the possibility of a counter-riposte, topper, or squelch, that is, a comeback".[4] He cites the example of possible interchanges at a dance in a school gym:

  • A one-liner: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Crumbles"
  • A comeback: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Sorry, I should have guessed by the way you're dressed".[5]

Backhanded compliments

Backhanding is referred to as slapping someone using the back of the hand instead of the palm—that is generally a symbolic, less forceful blow. Correspondingly, a backhanded (or left-handed) compliment, or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as, or accompanied by, a compliment, especially in situations where the belittling or condescension is intentional.[6]

Examples of backhanded compliments include, but not limited to:

  • "I did not expect you to ace that exam. Good for you.", which could impugn the target's success as a fluke.[7]
  • "That skirt makes you look far thinner.", insinuating hidden fat.[7]
  • "I wish I could be as straightforward as you, but I always try to get along with everyone.", insinuating an overbearing attitude.[7]
  • "I like you. You have the boldness of a much younger person.", insinuating decline with age.[7]

A bittersweet comment is a kind of misinterpretation, mixing positive lines with negative connotation, which may be hinting that he or she is clumsy, informal or awkward hospitality, has trust issues, is attention-seeking, insensitive or inattentive, and using negative connotation for comical effect, and mixing bold lines with positive word play.


Verbal insults often take a phallic or pudendal form; this includes offensive profanity.[8][9] and may also include insults to one's sexuality.


The flyting was a formalized sequence of literary insults: invective or flyting, the literary equivalent of the spell-binding curse, uses similar incantatory devices for opposite reasons, as in Dunbar's Flyting with Kennedy.[10]

"A little-known survival of the ancient 'flytings', or contests-in-insults of the Anglo-Scottish bards, is the type of xenophobic humor once known as 'water wit' in which passengers in small boats crossing the Thames ... would insult each other grossly, in all the untouchable safety of being able to get away fast."[11]

Samuel Johnson once triumphed in such an exchange: "a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, 'Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.'"[12]


Various typologies of insults have been proposed over the years. Ethologist Desmond Morris, noting that "almost any action can operate as an Insult Signal if it is performed out of its appropriate context – at the wrong time or in the wrong place", classes such signals in ten 'basic categories":[13]

  1. Uninterest signals
  2. Boredom signals
  3. Impatience signals
  4. Superiority signals
  5. Deformed-compliment signals
  6. Mock-discomfort signals
  7. Rejection signals
  8. Mockery signals
  9. Symbolic insults
  10. Dirt signals

Elizabethans took great interest in such analyses, distinguishing out, for example, the "fleering frump ... when we give a mock with a scornful countenance as in some smiling sort looking aside or by drawing the lip awry, or shrinking up the nose".[14] Shakespeare humorously set up an insult-hierarchy of seven-fold "degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct".[15]


What qualifies as an insult is also determined both by the individual social situation and by changing social mores. Thus on one hand the insulting "obscene invitations of a man to a strange girl can be the spicy endearments of a husband to his wife".[16]

See also


  1. Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (Penguin 1972) p. 214
  2. De Vos, George (1990). Status inequality: the self in culture. p. 177.
  3. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (1997) p. 138
  4. Goffman, pp. 215–216
  5. Mad, quoted in Goffman, p. 216
  6. "Backhanded — Definition of Backhanded at". Archived from the original on 11 February 2010. Retrieved 2010-01-27.
  7. Burbach, Cherie. "Backhanded Compliment. About Relationships. n.d." Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  8. Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape Trilogy (London 1994) p. 241
  9. Emma Renold, Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities (2005) p. 130
  10. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton 1973 )p. 270
  11. G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke Vol I (1973) p. 177
  12. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin 1984) p. 269
  13. Desmond Morris, Manwatching (London 1987) p. 186-192. ISBN 9780810913103
  14. George Puttenham in Boris Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) p. 72=3
  15. William Shakespeare. As You Like It, Act V, Scene IV
  16. Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1972) p. 412

Further reading

  • Media related to Insults at Wikimedia Commons
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