Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
When is an insult not an insult?
When the insulted has to look up your insult in the dictionary.
That’s the case for Donald Trump, I imagine, when North Korean president Kim Jong Un called the president a “dotard”--or, that is, when the translator for Kim Jong Un interpreted the insult with the word "dotard."
Now maybe the president is a dotard for having to look up the word, if he took the time to look for information in such a mundane and relatively factual source as a dictionary. Much social media teeth gnashing ensued, including expressions of horror over the many who did not know the term “dotard.”
Well, count me among them. I confess that I first thought, “Oh, is he trying to use the horrible insult of ‘retard’ but missed the word?” I even pronounced the word “do-tard” rather than “dote-erd” as I understand it now.
My more learned friends (especially of older literature) corrected my mistake, informing me of this wonderful old word connected to “dotage.” That I could understand.
Merriam-Webster dictionaries on Twitter offered a link to the definition of the word:
But I missed the insult completely. I knew it was supposed to be an insult, but like many sit-com and comic strip characters, I had to go look it up to know exactly what was being insulted. According to some on social media, that makes me an idiot.
That insult I understand.
Here’s another way an insult can go awry.
When the insult brings to mind a pleasant old song without the intended insult (whatever that might be).
All I thought of when Donald Trump used his UN speech to call Kim Jong Un a “rocket man” was the Elton John song. Ah, “rocket man.” Maybe it’s the line, “I’m not the man you think I am at home” that was supposed to sting. Or “Burning out his fuse up here alone.”
Oh no, wait. That was supposed to refer to the president of North Korea, not the president of the United States.
On YouTube, I even found this wonderful reinterpretation of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” by Iranian filmmaker and refugee Majid Anin.
but now we have this headline from the NY Daily News:
North Korea’s top diplomat says Trump’s ‘rocket man’ insult makes missile attack on U.S. ‘inevitable’
What does it take to make an insult work—to make it sting, burn, embarrass?
Apparently, only to know that it was an insult, intended to reduce, degrade, humiliate.
That's enough to provoke. Just maybe, that's enough to start nuclear war.
Maybe that insult really was an insult. Maybe insults never were funny. Maybe insults aren't fun to analyze as a genre either, to figure out what the requirements are for understanding an insult as an insult. I know I don't much care anymore. (well, maybe I still care a little bit)
Maybe all it takes for an insult to happen is one mean person intending to inflict harm on another, whoever that other may be and however mean that other person may be.
Maybe insults always burn, always sting, always make us say "ouch." Even if we then have to go look up the words.
Maybe our world will always be unsafe as long as insults are hurled, from one leader at another. But maybe that's people, hurling insults from one person at another, from one social media friend at another, from. one family member at another.
May we all be kind to one another. May we all be safe.