Famous insults we love
How to master the art of losing your cool
Prince vs Michael Jackson
“His album was called Bad because there wasn’t enough room on the sleeve for ‘Pathetic’.”
Humour makes a flattering disguise for ugly emotions — envy, spite, regret, or even disappointment can all be cleverly veiled with comical offence. Was Prince’s opinion on Jackson’s Grammy-winning album a churlish reaction to a missed opportunity (the two were meant to collaborate on the title track), or honest, professional loathing of a contemporary’s success? Nobody cares. If you must fire a cheap shot, you may as well give your spectators good reason to chuckle.
Salvador Dalí vs Pablo Picasso
“He finished modern art at one blow by outuglying, alone, in a single day, the ugly that all others combined turned out in several years.”
There was a genuine friendship between the two Spanish artists, until Dalí’s admiration turned to disgust, and he accused the cubist master of ‘destroying’ modern art. But fury begets creativity, and apart from inventing words like “outuglying”, Dalí produced an ungainly, almost sinister image of his new adversary in ‘Portrait of Picasso’ — which wasn’t much appreciated by its subject. One might argue that his views on Jackson Pollock’s paintings are his real masterpiece, though; he referred to them as “the indigestion that goes with fish soup”.
Bursts of anger can’t always be wished away with meditative silences or counts-to-ten. But when overcome with contempt, don’t give in to lazy name-calling or clichéd cussing. Take cues from these famous, furious figures on more graceful ways to disgrace.
John Dryden vs Thomas Shadwell
Shadwell alone, of all my sons, is he,
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity.
The rest to some faint meaning make pretence,
But Shadwell never deviates into sense.
Some beams of wit on other souls may fall,
Strike thro, and make a lucid interval;
But Shadwell’s genuine night admits no ray,
His ruling fogs prevail upon the day.
You might reduce your ire to #BitchPlease hashtags, but poet laureate Dryden employed no similar shrinkage of indignation. In the mid-1670s, after a series of intellectual disagreements with fellow poet Thomas Shadwell, Dryden decided to make him the mock-hero of his unsparing satire, 'Mac Flecknoe'. In his verses, he was careful to praise Shadwell for his only virtue — remarkable vapidity. And that’s how you ace a backhanded compliment.
Winston Churchill vs Neville Chamberlain
“At the depths of that dusty soul there is nothing but abject surrender.”
Not one to suppress displeasure, distrust and disapproval, the British Prime Minister’s opinions rarely suffered from diplomatic politeness. A frequent victim of his trenchant remarks was predecessor Neville Chamberlain, whose tolerance towards Nazi Germany caused Churchill to lash out with: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last.” Straightforward, insightful and delivered with the right amount of sting — that’s a Churchill zinger.
Dorothy Parker vs Audrey Hepburn
“She ran the whole gamut of emotions from A to B.”
The American writer and critic had a way with words all right — she could grind, file and polish them till she emerged with a scathing comment. Her review of Hepburn’s impassive stage performance in The Lake is but one example of her admirable capacity for verbal injury. Her thoughts on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead? “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” And on a wanton acquaintance? “The woman speaks eight languages and can’t say no in any of them.”