Insults

The Problem

Helmet
Helmet

Of course hurling insults at others is not great but it feels great. What’s more, there’s no need to use swearwords, as an amazing feature of the English language is that almost any noun can be used as an insult. This creates a new problem though. Which noun should the discerning would-be insulter choose? Well, let’s have a look at how insults work.

Analysis

Weapon
Weapon

First of all, it’s important to recognise that the verbatim meaning of the insult is of secondary importance: what really matters is intonation. An insult should be a word of quick exhalation, no more than two syllables. It should express both disdain and disgust, both of which must manifest themselves in the facial expression. To achieve this, the utterance will have to be separated into several distinct phases, the interplay of which should yield a word with all the desirable properties.

Phases

Plank
Plank

The first phase is the build-up and explosion phase. This is the key step in the dynamics of the insult for several reasons: it draws and focuses attention to the speaker, it should deliver the element of disdain and it also gives the insult its energy. The rest of the insult must roll off the tongue using the air compressed during this phase and running out of breath before the end is just as undesirable as having plenty of breath left. This phase therefore calls for a stop consonant, bilabial plosives ([p], [b]) work best, as they are reminiscent of (and occasionally include actual) spitting.

Muppet
Muppet,
a poor choice

The second phase is the evacuation phase. This phase consists of a mixture of vowels and consonants. Since almost all the air must be expelled here, the consonants should be approximants or fricatives, allowing relatively free airflow. Unrounded vowels can also improve the effectiveness of the insult by clenching the face into a snarl-like grimace.

In the third and final phase there’s not much air left to work with, but it should be enough for one final flourish. Although it is possible to simply leave out this phase and end with a vowel or semi-vowel, a velar stop helps giving a nice impression of retching.

Conclusion

Prick
Prick,
almost perfect

There can be alternative ways of forming effective insults (cf. “fucker”), either by reordering these steps or using radically different strategies, nevertheless this method covers all the objectives set for an effective insult that doesn’t involve literal swearing.

Using the method outlined above we can also construct the perfect insult: PING!

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