The delicate art of insults in a post-politeness age

The delicate art of insults in a post-politeness age

Nazlan Ertan
The delicate art of insults in a post-politeness age We learn to swear before we learn to talk properly - a habit that goes on for life. If you are a politician in the modern age, you have even more chance to perfect the skill thanks to your inner instincts of competitiveness and the not-so-silent majority ready to applaud or retweet your nastiness.

In a recent presentation at Dokuz Eylül University, one of the students asked what I thought of today’s political rhetoric, both in Turkey and abroad. 

It is a difficult question, which does not simply end with referring to modern times as the “post-politeness era.” Political insults and put-downs have been around for a long time. However, actual swear words are rarer, such as when Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte called Barack Obama the “son of a whore.”

Early vocabulary, lifelong habit

According to “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing,” a guide published by the Oxford University Press, the average child learns at least one swear word by the age of two. Around the age of three or four, the habit takes off and children pick up any “bad word” that is uttered around them. By the time you get to establish your own family, you have already developed the habit of using an average of 0.7 to 3 percent swear words in daily conversation, according to the book. 

As in other areas of life, frequency does not necessarily lead to creativity or originality. Most swear words fall into three categories – religious blasphemy, excrement and sexual acts. In other words, unless you are Shakespeare or Turkey’s foul-mouthed poet Can Yücel, the four letter words that we mostly use are just that: Four letter words of utter simplicity.

Creative insults

Çetin Altan, a recently deceased writer who had a sharp mind and a sharper pen, once suggested establishing a universal and historical “Museum of Insults” so that the political insults in the country could get some color and creativity. He said this may help Turks to go beyond their traditional insults involving sexual acts with the target’s mother, wife, daughter, horse, etc.

When Turks want to insult someone, like most other nations, they inevitably fall on their knowledge of zoology and pornography. “Ox,” “donkey,” and “dog” are universal, but the Turks couple it with insisting that your father was the same. Hence, “Eşşoğlueşşek” (a real tongue twister for foreigners) means you are a donkey and your father is a donkey too. This is just another twist on the French insult “mal-eleve” (badly brought up) in the sense that it suggests that you are a donkey because your father was one too.

Blunt diplomatic insults are generally rare and swear words even more so. Often they are simply intellectual posturing: U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford, referred to Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon as “Lady Macbeth” - a far better reference than what he chose for Hillary Clinton, whom he likened to “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.” 

In the same vein, France’s late President François Mitterrand called then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur “the Ottoman Strangler” – a double reference to the Turkish Levantine roots (that Balladur was not keen to display) and his habit of getting rid of his party rivals. British statesman Winston Churchill - a Nobel Literature Laureate - also had no habit of mincing his words. He once said of his arch-rival Clement Attlee: “An empty cab pulled up to Downing Street. Clement Attlee got out.” French statesman Georges Clemenceau was similarly cutting when he spoke of his British counterpart David Lloyd George: “If only I could piss the way he speaks!”

The Turkish style of political insults is snappy, clear and sufficiently offensive, although difficult to translate. ”The EU has pulled a ‘madik’ on us with the customs union,” Turkey prime minister once said, baffling those who did not know that “madık,” a word of Armenian origin, meant a “finger.” In short, the PM claimed that the EU had goosed us.

In Turkey, jailed Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş is known for his creativity in political put-downs. “You say you came to power through elections. Do you think we came to office through the civil servant exam?” he once addressed the government. “There are two political group meetings of the Justice and Development Party [AKP]. One is done by the prime minister and the other by the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP],” he said more recently. 

Other Turkish political actors mainly stick to insults shouted before the cameras.

The end of nice?

For the word-savvy, the election of Donald Trump – and along with his European replicas – heralds a new era in what is politically correct and what is not. It is not simply the rise of “post-truth” or “emotional reality” societies - it is also the decline, if not the end, of nice. 

Like you, I have read the articles on research showing that the young voters want strong leaders who make strong statements, as offensive as possible, in 140 re-tweetable characters. But that is certainly not true for the young people I met at Dokuz Eylül University: They seemed to think that what was good for an 18-year-old’s Twitter account was not good enough coming from a country’s top politicians.