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July 30, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 2 Faves: 0

Tracing the History of Insults

By Jeany Miller More Blogs by This Author

The Insult

Whoreson is a word rarely heard today, but centuries ago, it was used in England to label someone a “whore’s son.” Merriam-Webster says whoreson also refers to a coarse fellow and is a general term of offense. Shakespeare used the word twice in King Lear, and a book about the son of a prostitute titled Whoreson was written by Donald Goines in 2008.

This term is an example of one of the most commonly used pieces of vocabulary: the insult. Even when not unintentional, an insult is anything that brings pain to another person. They're often tossed around with reckless abandon and used to embarrass, affront, and avenge. In the blink of an eye, they can break hearts and separate people. At times, they can be as violent as weapons and harder to forget than physical wounds.

20th Century Trending

One of the most well-delivered insults in history is attributed to the late Winston Churchill, who routinely engaged in verbal spars with Lady Astor. She didn't appreciate his habits concerning cigars and alcohol and once remarked, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” Churchill coolly responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

In the 1940s, insults were veiled behind seemingly innocent slang words and phrases. A sexually promiscuous boy was called “active duty,” while a girl of the same nature was called a “share crop.” Even 19th century insults were less veiled, with words like coward and scoundrel carrying the full weight of their meanings.


The 1970s brought a glimmer of enlightenment to a world in which verbal attacks had become steadily more menacing and degrading. Women and minorities were among those most commonly insulted, followed by the elderly and young, disabled persons, and gays and lesbians. Crude jokes, sexist slights, racial slurs, and general put-downs ravaged a society that had to this point largely accepted the supremacy of straight white men. 

During the era of bell-bottomed jeans and tinted eyeglasses, people began to acknowledge the wrongs associated with verbal abuse. Psychologists made their first forays into understanding bullying, and women and minorities started to be seen as equals. These efforts were followed in the 1980s by a national campaign to minimize the injury caused by insults. During this period, school leaders and human behavior specialists agreed that the impact of insults could be mitigated by reducing a person’s sensitivity. This could be achieved by improving self-esteem.

The Youth Movement

The movement to boost society’s self-esteem started in schools. Teachers across America stopped providing negative feedback to students and instead began praising them with all the fluff and artificiality they could muster. Even obvious acts of failure were deemed not the fault of the student, but rather of someone or something else. 

Students were subsequently taught to deflect blame and think quite highly of themselves. The end result was a significant improvement in self-esteem as well as an increase in aggressive and violent behaviors. In time, advocates of the self-confidence movement realized they had not stamped out the problem of insulting because they had not yet confronted the root cause. So back to the drawing board they went.

Tune in tomorrow to read more about modern attitudes toward bullying and insults.

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  • Yup, I remember the late 70's, it was no longer acceptable to spank your child when they did something wrong. It's when Child Abuse became a thing!

  • I remember being in school and a was talk about and insulted which brought my self esteem down. I wish there was a class back than that could lift up my spirit and help me to not be so gullible.

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