Magazine article The Spectator

Contrary to Myth We Are Becoming Ever Wittier in Our Deployment of Scorn

Magazine article The Spectator

Contrary to Myth We Are Becoming Ever Wittier in Our Deployment of Scorn

Article excerpt

Wherever the civilised English gather to discuss the state we're in, it is almost axiomatic to allow that we're getting less refined. Discourse, public and private, is (we tell each other) getting cruder; wit is duller; our culture is dumbing down.

A vulgarity and obviousness is gaining ground over the art of delicate suggestion. Nowhere do we assume this to be truer than in the use of language for the purposes of discourtesy.

Twenty years ago, when I first began putting together an anthology of insult and abuse, I would have subscribed to this view. The book was to be called Scorn and as we began combing through literature ancient and modern for the best ripostes and put-downs, and the best examples, too, of sustained invective from every age, we looked forward to encountering the cleverness of our ancestors.

Among the ancient Greeks (I thought) would be found a sophistication in the use of language that even Tudor England could hardly match. Then would come Shakespeare, who would outshine his successors, if not his predecessors, in wit. Though I did know that the 18th century had produced a minor flowering in the elegant use of language, it never struck me that this would have been sustained into the 19th and 20th centuries, let alone the 21st.

I could not have been more wrong. We have just published the fourth edition of Scorn. Each has built upon the last, so that most survives from first to last, but a gap of about a decade before our 21st-century edition has allowed us to add thousands of new entries. Each time I've updated, the story has been the same. We're getting more sophisticated.

The stiletto is gaining ground over the club.

Subtlety in the use of English to sneer, decry or wound is on the increase. We are not getting more primitive, and we never were.

Take my fellow columnist Alan Watkins for example: 'Having a conversation with Mr Mandelson was rather like walking downstairs and missing the last step. You were uninjured but remained disconcerted.' Not only is this deliciously accurate, it is beautifully -- and so delicately -- expressed. P.J. O'Rourke on Hillary Clinton, 'Every American's first wife', is harsher, yet equally subtle.

Compare these with, 'Cosmus Equitiaes magnus cinaedus et fellator est suris apertis' found scrawled in Pompeii, and roughly translated 'Equitias's slave Cosmus is a big queer and a cocksucker with his legs wide open'. Classical learning should not distract us from the distinctly unlearned nature of what we translate.

Modern China seems to emulate the Romans: the Chinese government description of the then Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten -- 'A tango dancer who's opened his legs to President Clinton' -- has a Pompeiian ring.

Chris himself (or the cleric he reports) has been anything but: 'Hearing nuns' confessions is like being pecked to death by ducks'.

Could the Ancients, or even Shakespeare, have easily matched our contemporary Mamie Van Doren on Warren Beatty: 'He's the kind of man who will end up dying in his own arms, ' or the 20th-century song lyric on (it is said) Mick Jagger -- 'You're so vain you probably think this song is about you' -- or, indeed, Joan Rivers on Mick Jagger -- 'This man has childbearing lips'? …

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