On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I’m going to explain some of the most famous insults in political history! From “dotard” to “malignant cancerous tumour,” let’s learn how countries and politicians like to describe each other!!
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Last month I released a podcast on Boris Johnson’s eccentric language, and especially his use of a wide variety of insults. From gibbering rictus to mutton headed, there is no shortage of insults Johnson has previously used.
Insults, and insulting language, are not unusual in politics and international relations. I recently read an Economist article titled “The beastly history of diplomatic insults” which talked about a few times throughout history where different countries and politicians have insulted each other.
Insult can be both a noun and a verb in English. An insult is a “disrespectful or scornfully abusive remark or act” – for example, I recorded an episode on Boris Johnson’s famous insults. To insult means “to speak to or treat with disrespect” – such as, “he insulted me last night.”
The Economist article detailed many of the most famous insults in history – but didn’t really explain what they meant and why they were used! So, this episode is going to introduce you to the contents of that article, but also go further in defining and contextualising the vocabulary included. You don’t need to read the Economist article, but if you want to I’ll leave a link here!
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“The mute with the deaf”
There have been a lot of stories in newspapers and online recently about insults, especially in the UK’s media. Why? Earlier this month, the Foreign Secretary of the UK, Liz Truss, visited Moscow for discussions with the Russian government. Recently, there has been very high tensions between Russia and the western world over Ukraine. The British government hoped that Truss would help to reduce the anger and pressure…. It didn’t work…
Instead, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, described the conversation as a conversation of “the mute and the deaf.” What does this mean? Mute is an old and now offensive term to describe people who do not have the ability to speak. I don’t recommend using this to describe people with such a disability as it is considered to be offensive. Deaf refers to people with the inability to hear or impaired hearing.
So, a conversation of “the mute and the deaf” is a conversation between someone who can’t speak and someone who can’t hear. Obviously, this would pose challenges (although now we have technology to help this process). So, Mr Lavrov was suggesting his conversation with the British government was impossible, full of confusion, and perhaps a waste of time!
Liz Truss is not the only person to be insulted by Mr Lavrov. During a meeting with Saudi Arabian officials in 2015, a microphone recorded him describing the Saudis as “morons.” What does moron mean?
A moron is a foolish or stupid person. Moron, along with idiot and imbecile, used to be technical words in early 20th century science, education, and medicine – referring to people with intellectual disabilities. However, we no longer used moron in this sense as it is offensive.
Instead, today moron just refers to someone you think is being stupid or foolish. I forgot my keys last week when I went out – I felt like a moron. People who leave their trash in the street are morons.
“It still smells of sulphur”
Perhaps the king of insults was Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez – who served for 14 years. He was most famous for his insults of the US and then president George W Bush.
In 2006, Chavez made a speech at the United Nations, just one day after George Bush. As soon as it was Chavez’s time to speak, he said…
What does “it still smells of sulphur” mean? As you can guess from Chavez’s whole insult, it is related to the Devil. Sulphur is the smell of burning rock and dangerous volcanoes; it kind of smells like rotten eggs. The Christian devil and hell is associated with burning and heat as punishment: so over the years sulphur has come to be connected with the devil!
“You are an ignoramus, you are a donkey, Mr Danger…You are a coward, a killer, a genocide, an alcoholic, a drunk, a liar.”
This is another Chavez insult directed at George Bush taken from a TV speech in 2006. “You are an ignoramus, you are a donkey, Mr Danger…You are a coward, a killer, a genocide, an alcoholic, a drunk, a liar.” This is a long and complicated insult, so let’s break it down!
An ignoramus is an utterly ignorant person, who doesn’t understand or know anything! I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to computers.
A donkey is a horse-like animal, but it is used to refer to a stupid or obstinate person. My friends called me a donkey when I missed their plans.
A coward is “a person who is not brave and is too eager to avoid danger, difficulty, or pain.” People online who leave anonymous insults on social media are cowards.
A killer is someone who kills another person, usually on purpose. For example, “Police are searching for the killer!”
Genocide is not an adjective like the previous words, but a noun. Genocide is “the murder of a whole group of people, especially a whole nation, race, or religious group”
An alcoholic is a person who is unable to stop drinking alcohol – especially if they drink everyday and in large amounts. A drunk is another way of saying alcoholic. For instance, “he used to be an alcoholic and drunk, but he’s recovering now!”
And a liar is someone who tells lies regularly and is not trustworthy. If someone is a liar you can’t trust anything they say!
“A boy in short trousers”
20 years ago Robert Mugabe, the then-president of Zimbabwe described British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “a boy in short trousers.” Why is this an insult?
Actually, it is a combination of two different insults. “Wearing short pants” or “in short pants” is a common insult used to suggest someone is very young or inexperienced. Pants is the American way of saying trousers.
Traditionally, upper class English families, including the royal family, would dress their sons in shorts until they reached a certain age. In fact, if you ever see a picture of Prince George you will notice he is always in shorts! This culture is not just limited to the UK – other countries elementary schools often require children to wear shorts at school”
Similarly, “boy” is a common way of insulting someone by suggesting they are too young and inexperienced. China has used the term “boy” to dismiss the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In the USA, “boy” also has a racist meaning.
“Rocket man” and “Dotard”
One of the most famous recent examples of international insults came between Donald Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un. Donald Trump gave Kim Jong Un the nickname “rocket man” due to his desire to test weapons, fire missiles, and launch rockets. Trump reportedly sent copies of Elton John’s “Rocket man” CD to Kim!
In response, the North Koreans described Trump as a “dotard.” At the time, this was such a rarely used and uncommon word that most people had to pick up a dictionary to check for the meaning. A “dotard” is an old person, especially one who is confused and weak.
“A malignant cancerous tumour”
The final insult I’ll talk about today was tweeted by the Iranian supreme leader in 2018. He described Israel as “a malignant cancerous tumour.” Iran and Israel have a long and bitter rivalry – so its no surprise they issued such a strong insult.
Malignant is an adjective suggesting something wants to do harm, and in reference to disease is almost always used to refer to a harmful cancer or growth. The adjective cancerous means cancer, and a tumour is a mass of diseased cells that might cause illness.
So, Iran was describing Israel as a harmful disease – in response Israel responded by tweeting memes from Mean girls!
On today’s episode of Thinking in English, I wanted to define some of the most famous insults in political and diplomatic history. Using a recent Economist article as inspiration, I tried to explain what the insults meant and how to use them!!
However, not all insults are verbal. Turkey has been involved in two insulting controversies about chairs at international meetings – first, they were annoyed after Israel put the Turkish ambassador on a low sofa during a meeting, and then the Turkish government did the same thing to the European Commission president. Vladimir Putin famously introduced his massive dog to Angela Merkel of Germany. Merkel is well-known to be scared of dogs.
What is your favourite insult? Leave an insult from your country in the comments!!
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