A portion of Hippolyte Delaroche's 1836 oil painting Charles I Insulted by Cromwell's Soldiers
Duke Karl Insulting the Corpse of Klaus Fleming, Albert Edelfelt, 1878. Fleming's wife Ebba Stenbock on the right.

An insult is an expression, statement, or behavior that is often deliberately disrespectful, offensive, scornful, or derogatory towards an individual or a group. Insults can be intentional or unintentional, and they often aim to belittle, offend, or humiliate the target. While intentional insults can sometimes include factual information, they are typically presented in a pejorative manner, intended to provoke a negative emotional response or have a harmful reaction effect when used harmfully. Insults can also be made unintentionally or in a playful way but could in some cases also have negative impacts and effects even when they were not intended to insult.

Insults can have varying impacts, effects, and meanings depending on intent, use, recipient's understanding of the meaning, and intent behind the action or words, and social setting and social norms including cultural references and meanings.


In ancient Rome, political speeches and debates were known to include strong harshness and personal attacks. Historians suggest that insults and verbal attacks were common in the political discourse of the time. This practice reflected the highly confrontational nature of political engagement in ancient Rome.[1]

Many religious texts and beliefs have also contributed to views on insults and the implications of making insults in anger. Buddhism teaches 'Right Speech' is a part of the Noble Eightfold Path.[2]

In Christianity, for example, the Sermon on the Mount delivered by Jesus includes teachings on the significance of anger. Jesus emphasized the importance of managing one's emotions and non judgment in this example.[3][4]

In addition to political contexts, history also reveals unusual instances of insults. The Cadaver Synod, was an event where Pope Stephen VI held a posthumous trial for Pope Formosus in 897 AD. Stephen became the Pope after Pope Formosus and had his body dug up, dressed, and placed on a throne to stand trial even after his death.[5]

Unintentional Insults

An example of an unintentional insult may be not tasting a dessert made by a host.[6] Comments made carelessly can also become unintentional insults. Another example could include comments made carelessly about facial features, personality traits, personal taste (e.g. in music), underestimating personal abilities or interests, asking about involvement in something potentially creating stereotypes,[7] jokes, or even walking away from someone outside are among some things that may cause offence accidentally.[8]

Jocular exchange

Lacan considered insults a primary form of social interaction, central to the imaginary order – "a situation that is symbolized in the 'Yah-boo, so are you' of the transitivist quarrel, the original form of aggressive communication".[clarification needed][9]

Erving Goffman points out that every "crack or remark set up the possibility of a counter-riposte, topper, or squelch, that is, a comeback".[10] He cites the example of possible interchanges at a dance in a school gym:

Backhanded compliments

A backhanded (or left-handed) compliment, or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as, or accompanied by, a compliment, especially in situations where the belittling or condescension is intentional.[12]

Examples of backhanded compliments include, but are not limited to:

Negging is a type of backhanded compliment used for emotional manipulation or as a seduction method. The term was coined and prescribed by pickup artists.[14] Negging is often viewed as a straightforward insult rather than as a pick-up line,[15] in spite of the fact that proponents of the technique traditionally stress it is not an insult.

Personal attacks

A personal attack is an insult which is directed at some attribute of the person.

The Federal Communications Commission's personal attack rule defined a personal attack as one made upon the honesty, character, integrity, or like personal qualities[16] in the Communications Act of 1934.

Personal attacks are generally considered a fallacy when used in arguments since they do not attempt to debunk the opposing sides argument, rather attacking the qualities of a person.[17]


Verbal insults often take a phallic or pudendal form; this includes offensive profanity,[18][19] and may also include insults to one's sexuality. There are also insults pertaining to the extent of one's sexual activity. For example, according to James Bloodworth, "incel" “has gradually crept into the vocabulary of every internet troll, sometimes being used against men who blame and harass women for not wanting to sleep with them.” [20]


Insults in poetic form is practiced throughout history, more often as entertainment rather than maliciousness. Flyting is a contest consisting of the exchange of insults between two parties, often conducted in verse and became public entertainment in Scotland in the 15th and 16th centuries.[21] Senna is a form of Old Norse Eddic poetry consisting of an exchange of insults between participants.[22]

O du eselhafter Peierl (Oh, you asinine Peierl), composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was meant for fun, mocking, scatological humor directed at a friend of Mozart's.[23]

More modern versions include poetry slam, dozens, diss song and battle rap.[24] In the 1980s Masters of the Universe franchise, the character of Skeletor became known for insulting those around him with comedic putdowns.[25] There is also now a comedy genre of insult comedy.


The use of the V sign as an insult, combined with the upwards swing movement

Various typologies of insults have been proposed over the years. Ethologist Desmond Morris, noting that "almost any action can operate as an Insult Signal if it is performed out of its appropriate context – at the wrong time or in the wrong place", classes such signals in ten "basic categories":[26]

  1. Uninterest signals
  2. Boredom signals
  3. Impatience signals
  4. Superiority signals
  5. Deformed-compliment signals
  6. Mock-discomfort signals
  7. Rejection signals
  8. Mockery signals
  9. Symbolic insults
  10. Dirt signals

Elizabethans took great interest in such analyses, distinguishing out, for example, the "fleering frump ... when we give a mock with a scornful countenance as in some smiling sort looking aside or by drawing the lip awry, or shrinking up the nose".[27] Shakespeare humorously set up an insult-hierarchy of seven-fold "degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct".[28]


What qualifies as an insult is also determined both by the individual social situation and by changing social mores. Thus on one hand the insulting "obscene invitations of a man to a strange girl can be the spicy endearments of a husband to his wife".[29]

See also


  1. ^ "In ancient Rome, insults in politics knew hardly any boundaries".
  2. ^ O’Brien, B. (2019, January 21). What does buddhism teach about right speech?. Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/right-speech-450072
  3. ^ "Jesus' best insults".
  4. ^ "Matthew 5:22 - Bible Verse Meaning and Commentary".
  5. ^ Carrie Whitney, Ph. D. (2020, April 24). The cadaver synod: When a dead Pope was put on trial. HowStuffWorks. https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-events/dead-pope-put-on-trial.htm
  6. ^ "Insult - Definition, Meaning & Synonyms | Vocabulary.com".
  7. ^ "Social Mistake: Unintentionally Insulting People | www.succeedsocially.com".
  8. ^ "Microaggression | Psychology Today".
  9. ^ Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (1997) p. 138
  10. ^ Goffman, pp. 215–216
  11. ^ Mad, quoted in Goffman, p. 216
  12. ^ "Backhanded – Definition of Backhanded at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Archived from the original on 11 February 2010. Retrieved 2010-01-27.
  13. ^ a b c d Burbach, Cherie. "Backhanded Compliment. About Relationships. n.d." about.com. Archived from the original on 3 January 2015. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  14. ^ Nicholson, Jeremy (31 August 2013). "Can an Insult Make You Fall in Love?". Psychology Today. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  15. ^ Woolf, Nicky (25 May 2012). "'Negging': the anatomy of a dating trend". New Statesman. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  16. ^ Federal Register. Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Service, General Services Administration. August 1978. p. 36389.
  17. ^ "Ad Hominem Fallacy". Excelsior University OWL. Retrieved 2022-09-11.
  18. ^ Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape Trilogy (London 1994) p. 241
  19. ^ Emma Renold, Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities (2005) p. 130
  20. ^ Bloodworth, James (2020-02-13). "Why Incels are the losers in the age of Tinder". UnHerd. Retrieved 2022-08-26.
  21. ^ flyting at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  22. ^ Harris, Joseph C. (May 1979). "The Senna: From Description to Literary Theory". Michigan Germanic Studies. 5: 65–74.
  23. ^ Karhausen, Lucien (2011). The Bleeding of Mozart. Xlibris Corporation. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-1456850760.
  24. ^ "Flyting Was Medieval England's Version of an Insult-Trading Rap Battle – Atlas Obscura". www.atlasobscura.com. 14 January 2016. Retrieved 2022-09-11.
  25. ^ Hughes, William (5 November 2014). "Up your insult game by taking lessons from Skeletor's best put-downs". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 5 March 2024.
  26. ^ Desmond Morris, Manwatching (London 1987) pp. 186–192. ISBN 978-0810913103
  27. ^ George Puttenham in Boris Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) pp. 72–73
  28. ^ William Shakespeare. As You Like It, Act V, Scene IV
  29. ^ Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1972) p. 412

Further reading