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An insult is an expression, statement (or sometimes behavior) which is disrespectful or scornful. Insults [1] may be intentional or accidental. An insult may be factual, but at the same time pejorative, such as the word "inbred".


Lacan considered insults a primary form of social interaction, central to the imaginary order - 'a situation that is symbolised in the "Yah-boo, so are you" of the transitivist quarrel, the original form of aggressive communication'.[2]

Erving Goffman points out that every 'crack or remark set up the possibility of a counter-riposte, topper, or squelch, that is, a comeback'.[3] He cites the example of possible interchanges at a dance in a school gym:

  • A one-liner: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Crumbles"
  • A comeback: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Sorry, I should have guessed by the way you're dressed".[4]

Backhanded compliment

A backhanded compliment, also known as a left-handed compliment or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as a compliment. Sometimes, a backhanded compliment may be inadvertent. However, the term usually connotes an intent to belittle or condescend.[5]

A backhanded compliment may fool the listener, but the compliment remains "backhanded" because the speaker is being intentionally slighting and insulting. In some cultures, backhanded compliments are considered a genteel or polite way of expressing disdain.[citation needed]

Some examples of backhanded compliments may be:

  • "I did not expect you to ace that exam. Good for you." (Implying that you aren't very smart.)[6]
  • "That skirt makes you look far thinner." (Implying that you're too fat.)[6]
  • "I wish I could be as straightforward as you, but I always try to get along with everyone." (the implication here is that you're too bold or overbearing.)[6]
  • "I like you. You have the boldness of a much younger woman." (Implying that you are old) [6]


Verbal insults often take a phallic form; this includes many of the more offensive profanity.[7][8]


The flyting was a formalized sequence of literary insults: 'invective or flyting, the literary equivalent of the spell-binding curse, uses similar incantatory devices for opposite reasons, as in Dunbar's Flyting with Kennedy '.[9]

'A little-known survival of the ancient "flytings," or contests-in-insults of the Anglo-Scottish bards, is the type of xenophobic humor once known as "water wit" in which passengers in small boats crossing the Thames...would insult each other grossly, in all the untouchable safety of being able to get away fast'.[10]

Samuel Johnson once triumphed in such an exchange: 'a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, "Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods"'.[11]


Various typologies of insults have been proposed over the years. 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: 1. Disinterest 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'.[12]

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'.[13] Shakespeare himself 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'.[14]


Sociologists[who?] suggest that insults are often an indicator of flawed reasoning about the character or motivation of others. Though insults are common, and often used in jest, a fundamental axiom of sociology recognizes that derogatory forms of speech make erroneous attributions about the motivation of a person. Scholars classify the erroneous assumptions as the fundamental attribution error.

What qualifies as an insult is also determined both by the individual social situation and by changing social mores. Thus on the one hand the insulting 'obscene invitations of a man to a strange girl can be the spicy endearments of a husband to his wife';[15] on the other hand, the male gaze may be insulting in and of itself to a feminist, whereas a post-feminist might note how 'his eyes took me in...[but] at least he didn't look at me offensively; and believe me, if you're a woman who works in a bar, you can tell the difference between an evaluation and an eye fuck'.[16]

See also


  1. Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (Penguin 1972) p. 214
  2. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection (1997) p. 138
  3. Goffman, p. 215-6
  4. Mad, quoted in Goffman, p. 216
  5. "Backhanded — Definition of Backhanded at". Archived from the original on 11 February 2010. Retrieved 2010-01-27. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Burbach, Cherie. "Backhanded Compliment." About Relationships., n.d. Web. 2 Jan. 2015. <>.
  7. Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape Trilogy (London 1994) p. 241
  8. Emma Renold, Girls, Boys, and Junior Sexualities (2005) p. 130
  9. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton 1973 )p. 270
  10. G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke Vol I (1973) p. 177
  11. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (Penguin 1984) p. 269
  12. Desmond Morris, Manwatching (London 1987) p. 186-192
  13. George Puttenham in Boris Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) p. 72=3
  14. Peter Alexander ed., William Shakespeare: The Complete Works (London 1962) p. 282
  15. Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1972) p. 412
  16. Charlaine Harris, Dead as a Doornail (London 2009) p. 26