Lamenting the Loss of Literary Insults

At a recent live production, the word “motherf***er” was spoken, much to the delight and approval of the audience. I cringed at the offensive profanity, proving my lonely status as an ancient but lovable old fart. William Shakespeare, the great English poet and playwright who died more than 500 years ago, created a similar insult in his play Titus Andronicus with the words, “Villain, I have done thy mother.” Isn’t that better?

Profanity is mainstream in conversation, online sites, books, movies, blogs, and most school playgrounds. But some of us still refuse to write the f-word, and I resort to asterisks because I can’t do it. The word is brutal and vile, and lacks literary and lyrical language used in outdated manuscripts. Consider more of Shakespeare’s eloquent insults:

“You scullion. You rampallian. You fustilarian. I’ll tickle your catastrophe.”

Who wouldn’t be destroyed with this quote from Falstaff in Henry IV? Any fool can call someone a “son of a bitch.” To truly humiliate a foe with words, try this quote from King Lear:

“Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch.”

Shakespeare’s talent excelled beyond the boring insults of “asshole” or “creep.” His characters hurled creative verbal abuses such as “cream-faced loon,” “moldy rogue,” and “a toad; ugly and venomous.” Shakespeare was brilliant for destroying a character’s reputation with a single zinger: “Your virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese.”

My current agitation with the decline of proper language was triggered by an official description printed on the registration form for a national nonfiction book award: “Entrant, or it’s duly authorized representative…” It’s elementary for this association to review its knowledge of basic grammar concerning “it’s” and “its.”

I’ve discovered that some current literary techniques and basic grammar rules are being discounted in favor of “creative license.” Imagine a book titled, “For Who the Bell Tolls” or “As I Lie Dying.” Does it make you cringe? Or, am I a useless curmudgeon, smacking my ruler on the knuckles of last century’s students?

I would love for some young writer to reply to my anguish by using some of Shakespeare’s more infamous insults:

“Thou elvish-mark’d, abortive, rooting hog!”

“Thou sodden-witted lord! Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows!”

“Thou damned and luxurious mountain goat.”

“I’ll beat thee, but I would infect my hands.”

Yes, I would appreciate the label of “luxurious mountain goat” over the crass and trailer-trash accusation of being a “motherf***er.” To paraphrase the Bard, to curse with wit and elegance or not to curse; that is the question.

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