Technology with attitude

Insults for Fun and Profit

11

Bored, bored, bored. Won’t you all be glad when Blogger comes back to life and I can go back to posting at my own place?

It occurs to me that some commenters need practice in insults. I understand the habit doesn’t come naturally to every soul. But we “centrists” ought to eschew the Neanderthal grunts of Kossacks and LGFers and aspire to a higher standard of low-down. The athame is mightier than the sledgehammer, if you’re little and fast and your opponent is baked on mushrooms. Don’t ask me how I know this.

As my contribution to the cause, here’s some historical context:

Insulting someone in historical cultures based on codes of honor was a tricky business. Whether it was Achilles’ sulky wrath on the hot shores of Ilion or Preston Brooks fingering his gutta-percha cane in the U.S. Senate chamber, calm fury burning in his eyes, those who felt themselves insulted also felt justified in exacting revenge.

The Internet resembles nothing more than a Wild West frontier town or a city in Europe’s Dark Ages. When you insulted someone in the days of the code duello, you had better have thought it through beforehand and be prepared to eat your words or defend them. I have some sympathy for the 19th century’s dueling apologists, who argued that, as vicious as dueling was, it wasn’t as bad for the nation as the flood of public calumny that flowed after it was outlawed. In America, Charles Gibson wrote, “The code preserved a dignity, justice and decorum that have since been lost. The present generation will think me barbarous but I believe that some lives lost in protecting the tone of the bar and the press, on which the Republic itself so largely depends, are well spent.”

So take the vikings — please. The worst you could do to insult one was to imply that a man was sansorðinn — “used in the position of a female (blauðr) by another man,” in other words “demonstrably sodomized.”

This wasn’t quite the equivalent of calling someone “gay” today. In modern American conceptions of masculinity, all suggestion of homosexuality tend to be taken as equally insulting. But the Vikings distinguished the “catcher” from the “pitcher” role.

This they had in common with a great many Western and other cultures throughout history. Male sexuality, the unfocused urge to copulate, was presumed to be powerful and general and not particularly or necessarily limited to women. The strict division of male sexuality into hetero- and homo- that we presume today was not usually made before the late 19th century. Attempts to fit Walt Whitman or Lord Byron into a comfortable diagnosis of “homosexual” falter on the realities of their time and place.

Nonetheless, for Vikings, an accusation of sansorðinn was serious business. It could be punished by fullrettirsorð “full penalty,” meaning that the insulted man could kill the insulter with impunity. The authorities would look the other way.

The intensity of rages and passion is sometimes easy to overlook for those who study history. We wonder why people aren’t reasonable about it, like us. But it’s our job, approaching history, to cross the gulf and meet them on their own ground.

Otherwise, nothing makes sense. People in the Icelandic sagas almost never talk in depth about what they are feeling and words for emotional states are rare. Characters’ behavior often appears bizarrely unemotional. Talking with the man who killed her beloved husband, a woman makes jokes about the bloody ax he carries. When a warrior hears that an enemy has died, instead of celebrating, he takes to his bed for several months.

But to lap the distance between that world and ours, you have to keep reading, and think in terms of the codes of honor. The widow’s laughter while talking with her husband’s killer is a nervous outburst, perhaps, or even a ploy; soon she tricks him with “advice” that will lead to his own death. A viking becomes depressed when an old enemy passes away, for that means he will never be able to repay the insults he has suffered.

We are accustomed to understanding emotion as a personal experience — something that occurs “inside” and may or may not be expressed. But there are cultures in which emotion is overwhelmingly a social matter, not a private one. The early use of humiliation referred not to an inner state but to being made humble in the presence of those higher on the social scale. Only in the 18th century did it become normal to say “I feel humiliated” rather than “I am humiliated.”

Viking sexual insults carried such dangerous emotional weight that the 13th century Gulaðing proscribed the use of these words in public. But in such cultures, insults didn’t have to be direct to be felt. Under pressure from fear of retribution, the art of insult in many places evolved into a language of highly subtle and displaced images. It is not impossible to see in these symbolic languages the first breath of poetry or art.

In some cultures around the Indian Ocean, the innocent word “brother-in-law,” when addressed to a male who is not a brother-in-law, is an extreme insult, with implications of “I slept with your sister.” In ancient Greece, the gesture made by sticking the thumb between two fingers and holding up the fist was extremely insulting. That’s because the display vaguely resembles a fig. And a fig, when ripe and split open resembles the female pudenda (Greek sykon “fig” also meant “vulva.”) So basically you were calling someone a “cunt” when you showed your hand to him like that.

It was such a provocation that politicians in ancient Greece used to loose their tempers and fly into a rage over it. So of course it was something your enemy wanted to do to you. But the opposing politician didn’t want to stoop to that level, so he had one of his underlings stalk the other fellow and “show him the fig.” Greek sykon “fig” + phanein “to show” = sykophantes “one who shows the fig,” which passed through Latin and into English as sycophant, which originally in English meant “slanderer” and in the late 16th century shifted its sense to “mean, servile flatterer.”

Among the vikings, even calling a man a “mare,” or a “woman” could call down the weight of fullrettirsorð. So among more educated Vikings sexual taunting wrapped itself in obscure mythological or literary allusions. The stealth version includes trenið, or “wood-insult,” which was an alternative of muðnið or “mouth insult.”

If you wanted to imply that a man was sansorðin, you posted two figures made out of wood, one behind the other in a properly suggestive position, and you put the skull of a mare on the figure in front. (Think about it.)