In Memoriam: The Art of Insult

Wherefore stinging wit? The spontaneous, searing slam?

After observing these last elections (American and Canadian), I fear that the art of insult may have died with the masters.

Have all talking heads lost their nerve? Is everyone reading from a script? Are all public figures slaves to their PR people? In this inarticulate age, and compared to past politicians, today’s guys are egregiously limp.

If you recall, the best insult summoned by Al Gore was “snippy”. Dubya responded with “sore loser”.

Uh, ouch?

In Canada, Joe Clark likened Stockwell Day to a game show host, and Jean Chretien said that Day’s party represents the dark side of human nature.

Oooh. The blisters.

What about the crushing quip? Such as this, from Pierre Elliot Trudeau: “The Honourable Member disagrees; I can hear him shaking his head.”

wit J104162401

Or, from Winston Churchill, “You are a modest man, with much to be modest about.”

Benjamin Disraeli was a talent. He once turned to an MP and noted: “Your smile is like the fittings on a coffin.” When asked to explain the difference between calamity and misfortune, he replied: “If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. If someone pulled him out, it would be a calamity.”

My favourite nasty political exchange was between the Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.

Sandwich: “I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.”

Wilkes: “That depends on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”


Mark Twain was good at skewering politicians: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”

wit2 wit3

Oliver Wendell Holmes: “He may have genius. The contrary is, of course, probable.”

Harold Ickes noted: “Dewey has thrown his diaper into the ring.”

From John Sparrow: “If he’d wash his neck, I’d wring it.”

Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill, inviting him to the opening of his play. At the bottom, he wrote: “Bring a friend. If you have one.”

Churchill wrote in reply, saying that he couldn’t make the opening, and then added: “But we’d like to attend the second performance. If there is one.”

This brings me to Dubya. Who has the same presidential qualifications as my poodle. Neither one can read and both like to run outside. The difference is that my poodle is capable of producing original thought. While Dubya bends over for all oilmen, chemical companies, religious nuts, ‘lectric-char-luvin rednecks and Republican rustlers, my poodle does not always do as he’s told. And my poodle has better manners.


As I write this, we still don’t know who will be the next US president, but the smell of a Bush placement grows stronger. In a way, it’s a good thing. A Dubya administration, disastrous as it will undoubtedly be, will provide more grist for the comedy mill than five Quayle terms could ever have.

The fact that Dubya is where he is in the first place brings me to this remark, belatedly directed at another George by the novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

“George the Third

Ought never to have occurred

One can only wonder

At so grotesque a blunder.”

Blitz Magazine, January 2001

English: Decay Sets In


Blitz Magazine, March 1999

I’m looking at the cover of the February 15th edition of Maclean’s Magazine. Under the heading ‘Future Shock’, there are two lines which read: ‘The U.N. says Canada is Number 1. But that can’t last unless we make radical changes–from lower taxes to better education.’

          The latter sentence is, of course, grammatically incorrect. Which, considering the fact that it appears on the cover of Canada’s esteemed national publication, is disgraceful.

          At home, in the February 8th edition of the Vancouver Sun, a business reporter has, in her article, included the sentence: ‘Then there’s bulk subscriptions.’ I know that, if I were so inclined, I could spend a couple of hours editing today’s Province.

          A current ICBC television commercial uses the word ‘impact’ as a verb, disappointingly continuing a trend which began last year. This joins the currently-popular ‘Just because……..doesn’t mean,’ on the grammatically-incorrect bandwagon set in motion, in the main, by lazy journalists and copy writers who would rather skew their language than try to find a better way of saying something in the allotted space or time. (My favourite short-cut was presented by former BCTV consumer reporter Kimberly Halkett, who invented the word ‘fraudulated’ as a catch-all for use on her beat.)

          Another source of blame is art directors who, increasingly, are the ones making the decisions on how words and phrases are presented.

          Recently, an art director friend proudly displayed her lay-out for the identity of a housing development. Underneath a beautifully-designed logo, she had used the title ‘Towncentre’.

          “Town centre is two words,” I said.

          ‘It looks better as one,” she replied.

          “It’s bad English.”

          “So what? It’s a logo. I’m creating an image and I have artistic license to do what I want with the words.”

          I beg to differ. If I were a client commissioning advertising and/or design, the last thing I would want is an image or campaign which appears to encourage mediocrity.

          I am, of course, over-reacting. At the University of British Columbia, senior English instructor Jane Flick, who has had her students stand in silence to observe the death of the apostrophe, remains philosophical.

          “Incorrect usage is how new words come in. It’s the nature of language. You can’t hold back the sea.”

          I side with Irish dramatist Lord Dunsany who, long ago, declared war on corruptors of language. As he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1936: ‘To every complaint that one may utter about bad language, one usually gets the answer, “A language must grow.” This is true when we have some new invention needing a new name, but it is of vital importance that we should be able to distinguish between growth and decay.”


Blitz Magazine, March 1999

A Day in English

Blitz Magazine, January 2003

On, Like, Language


It was a dark and stormy night. John sat at his window, sipping a cup of double-half-caff-no whip-no-sugar-half-water, watching thuh snow swirl down to the streets. He wished he’d remembered to cover and plug in his Durango so it would start in the morning, and became accepting of the fact that he might have to take transit the next day. Then his thoughts returned to thuh events of his day.

Basically, I was bad from thuh outset. As he was leaving the house, his wife said:

“John, I won’t be here when you get home. And I’m also not coming back too.”

 “Ohmygod Brittni! Why?”

“Basically, our relationship has suffered a disconnect. At the end of the day, we no longer dialogue.”

“Ohmygod,” replied John, stunned. “But just because….doesn’t mean…Is there another man?”

“Yes. He’s a fisher. And his mentoring capabilities are…considerable.”

“So that’s it?”

“My people will contact your people.”

“OK…Well, ciao Brittni.”

“Ciao John.”

John was severely impacted. But he pulled himself together to take his first meeting. It was with a young hockey player—the kid was headed for NHL stardom but, when speaking with the media, he kept forgetting to say ‘uh’. John spent from 9 a.m. in the morning to 10:15 a.m. in the morning coaching him; making sure that he’d remember to say ‘uh’ after every third word. The two interfaced well, and John was satisfied that his help would positively impact the boy’s personal development and career path.

At 10:30 a.m. in the morning, he met with his biggest client, thuh owner of a grosherie store chain that was launching a line of culllinary products. John was ready to strategize. Mr. Brown’s expression indicated a negative viewpoint.

“Basically John,” said Mr. Brown, “I think it’s time for me to re-task marketing. Just because you’ve done some really great work doesn’t mean that you’re thinking outside the box. Basically, at thuh end of the day, our interactions indicate differing views and path progress expectations. And, in addition, you are also having difficulty providing my company with mentoring and leadership. At thuh end of the day, I actually don’t actually feel that our relationship is resulting in optimized and maximized potential points. And as well, at thuh end of the day, I also think that the snapshot of our relationship indicates that we need closure.”

John stared at Mr. Brown, absorbing his words. Basically, he knew that, at the end of thuh day, thuh upshot of this dialogue would be negative for his financial wellness.

“I’m sorry John,” continued Mr. Brown. “If you could up-date my accounting department… Thank you for conferencing with me.”

In a daze, John saw Mr. Brown out. Then he went to Destinee’s office and gave her the bad news.

“Ohmygod!” Destinee exclaimed. “That basically means we’ll have to downsize! And as well, at thuh end of the day, Luigi’s position will be made redundant too!”

Actually, John had basically forgotten about Luigi, the design wizard brought onboard to spearhead the creation of the packaging for Mr. Brown’s new line. Luigi was known as one of the best in the business—he was 17 and spoke no English, but he sure knew his way around a bottle of olive oil.

“He’s still fairly young,” John replied. “His career will probably recover.”

Destinee was not soothed. “Ohmygod! Our image consultant said it’s key to keep at least one New Canadian onboard! Our team will look like we’re not keeping current! Ohmygod!”

“I could care less! This is not actually a nucular disaster! Just because we lost one client doesn’t mean we’re finished! Gather the team! We need inter-office interaction! To brainstorm about how we can achieve conflict resolution! And as well, we must also identify solutions, and plan how we can best interface in order to bring about those solutions.

“In addition, we can foster new relationships too! We can spin this so the agency will be positively impacted! We will locate the box! We will envision that box! And then we will think outside it! At thuh end of the day, the bottom line is that we’re basically still here and we’ll soon be on track too! Book the dialoguing for 11:30 a.m. this morning, then order up lunch. Expense it on Mr. Brown. As well, out-place Luigi too. But in a way that will make him feel empowered.”

Basically, Destinee actually fell down on the task. As John watched the snow flurry down, he listened to the news report on the TV behind him.

“And a terrible incident downtown today. At 12:00 p.m. this afternoon, a young man who had been fired by English R Us Advertising jumped from a fourth-storey floor and landed below, on top of a young man walking their dog. The dog was unharmed but, at 8:00 p.m. this evening, the man died from their injuries.

As constable Jane Doe said: ‘It’s tragic. They’re just a kid. The gentleman that fell clearly required counseling with out-placement. We did attend the premise, and found that the incident was unforeseeable. For the next 24 hours, grief counselors and social workers will be posted on that portion of the sidewalk to assist anyone needing assistance with acceptance of the event. At the moment, I have nothing more to say at this time.”

John sighed. “Ciao Luigi.”