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  • Writer's pictureLawrie

How to insult someone's intelligence in conscious language

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

The editor chat that I'm part of has been talking about conscious language a lot lately. You can thank the recent kerfuffle surrounding Roald Dahl for that, something which I won't comment on. Mostly because it's all been said by others, but also because the more we talk about it, the more we're doing exactly what the publisher wants: selling more Roald Dahl. (As someone who also suffers from nostalgia on occasion, I would like to beg you all to just let him go.)

But I digress.

One of the topics that sprung from our discussions surrounding this issue was how to call people names without, well, insulting someone else by accident. My colleague Tali Ijack and I, who share an interest in conscious language ("Activism through editing!" as she puts it), were vetting the various favoured epithets of the others. Idiot, stupid, moron, dink (which was a new one to me) all came to light. My own favourite, dumbass, is something I've known for some time is problematic, but language is a hard habit to break, and I'm getting better.

The issue with these particular words isn't so much the sentiment, but how we use these words to express that sentiment.

I think in most cases it's safe to say that when we call someone an idiot or a moron, what we're saying is something like "you had all these opportunities to know better, and yet here you are." It's willful ignorance. It's a refusal to learn better. It's a doubling down on our own determined lack of knowledge.

There are ways to insult someone's intelligence and there are ways to insult someone's intelligence. Most of us (though not all of us by any means) are decent enough human beings that when we meet someone with a disability or someone who is part of a marginalized community, we don't immediately think "let's turn this person's real life experience into an insult for people I don't like." And yet this is what we do. Constantly and every day. It's almost always unintentional, language habits rooted since childhood, their meanings long forgotten. But there are many people who haven't forgotten, whose histories are entwined with this terminology, and who have had these words used against them as a way of keeping them marginalized and demeaned.

When we use these words, we're turning a disability into a slur, we're appropriating someone's identity and using it as a way to insult someone else, turning that quality into something inherently bad. We are saying, "this thing that is happening to you, this thing that you are, is so bad and wrong that I can use it to demean others." And afterwards saying, "but I didn't mean it like that" doesn't do you much good. Because yes, if you really think about it, you did.

Having said that, I am by no means against insulting people. Some people just cry out for being insulted. Look at JK Rowling. Look at Donald Trump. Look at Jordan Peterson. These are the types who personify what I was talking about before: "you had all these opportunities to know better, and yet here you are." But that doesn't really have the same snappy, concise satisfaction to it that calling someone an idiot or a dumbass would have. Even "willfully ignorant," though shorter, is still a little too formal and on-the-nose to really make you feel better.

So how do you do it? Personally, I find sticking to anatomy to be a safe bet. Knob. Twat. Ass.

You can get a little creative with them. Reading the occasional erotica can help. Engorged shaft. Douche nozzle. Swollen member.

Combining these words with otherwise innocuous words is also useful. Douche canoe, for instance. Or ass hat.

The point is it can be done. We can all be better people, even when we're being mean. We can be the better person, even when we're stooping to their level. For someone with creativity and the right tone of voice, only being the asshole you mean to be is never truly out of reach.


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune,
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