Sunday, November 15, 2009

You poor, base, rascally, cheating, lack-linen

After this, I promise to shut up about the Arctic. I finally finished The Arctic Grail by Pierre Berton and I am bursting with knowledge. Did you know that the North Pole and the North Magnetic Pole are not the same thing? I have always assumed that Earth's magnetic poles are located at its geographic poles, when in fact, the North (and South) magnetic poles are located nowhere near the geographic poles, and they do not maintain a constant position. According to Wikipedia, the North Magnetic Pole is currently located on Ellesmere Island, but when it was first was discovered, by James Clark Ross, in 1831, it was on the Boothia Penninsula--both locations hundreds of miles south of the geographic North Pole and hundreds of miles distant from each other.

Then there's the Peary/Cook controversy. Did either one reach the North Pole? Cook has been discredited, although you can't help rooting for him because Peary is so unlikeable. I, in my colossal ignorance, had Robert Edward Peary--who claims to have been the first to reach the North Pole--confused with Oliver Hazard Perry, who beat the British in the Battle of Lake Erie, near Buffalo during the War of 1812. I did think it odd that a War of 1812 hero also conquered the Pole, and now I am straight on that mystery, much to my own satisfaction. Then there's Edward Parry--another important Arctic explorer, and of the War of 1812 era (although British), so you can excuse my confusion.

While helping Miss G write a poem for school, I discovered an amusing little web tool: Shakespeare Search. You type a word into the search bar and you will get every line from any of Shakespeare's plays that uses that word. Fresh from my Arctic research, I typed in "scurvy" and got a wealth of amusing insults: "What a pied ninny's this! thou scurvy patch!" (The Tempest III ii) I tried "whoreson": "You peasant swain! you whoreson malt-horse drudge! (The Taming of the Shrew IV i). Wench: "Marry, sir, she's the kitchen wench and all grease." (The Comedy of Errors III ii)

Elizabethan English had a rich collection of insults, most of which, sadly, have fallen out of use. Take this line from Henry VIII: "Bless me, what a fry of fornication is at the door." Or take this line from All's Well that Ends Well: "Drunkenness is his best virtue, for he will be swine drunk, and in his sleep he does little harm, save to his bedclothes about him." There's a great scene in the academic satire I'm reading now, in which two professors engage in a duel of insults taken from Shakespeare. I read Forever Amber a while back and was impressed, indeed almost slack-jawed with amazement, at the glorious insults Amber uses against her many detractors. Forever Amber may not be taken seriously as a work of literature, but Kathleen Winsor did an impressive job of resurrecting the colorful dialogue of the 17th century.

English today has a pathetic collection of insults: asshole, douchebag--what else? I can't think of anything beyond these tepid examples.


  1. You're always teaching me something. I've been thinking that about insults since I started teaching Shakespeare back in '93. I need to boost my repetoire, thanks for the reminder.

  2. I've used Shakespearean insults as part of an introduction to my unit on Shakespeare for the last few years. Might I suggest this book It has a bunch of great warm-ups for Shakespeare, but also has quite a few pages that basically constitute a Shakespearean insult generator. Pick one from this column, then one from this column, etc.

    You'd be surprised (or perhaps not) at how long this can entertain children of a certain age (or perhaps all ages?). Shakespeare never seems all that scary after this.

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  4. From speaking other languages I can confirm the paucity of the English language when it comes to swearing. However, not all is lost, all you need is one of these gems and you too shall be the bearer of colorful vocabulary:

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