AUTHOR:  Julie Tibbott

PUBLISHER: Reader’s Digest

ISBN: 978-1-62145-066-5

The Insult Dictionary certainly caught my attention when I saw its press release. What an idea! I delighted to think I would have this wonderful resource to give me hundreds of creative insults that would bemuse and befuddle the recipients.

Well, as it happens, I don’t ever insult anyone. It’s not in my makeup. I am a peace-making, mild person with respect for everyone. That doesn’t, however, keep me from muttering unflattering things about the various less-than-pleasant people I may happen across, especially when driving. I just say those nasty things under my breath where no one else can hear them. It’ll still be cool to have a ready supply of verbal ammunition for such occasions.

When the book arrived, I jumped in, ready to learn lots of insults like the one on the front cover, where a man in Elizabethan garb says, “You goatish, long-tongued churl!” Yessir, this is going to be great.

There’s a quick six-sentence introduction, followed by the first of nine sections. Entitled “Ancient Appellations,” it is 19 pages of lists of ancient Roman and Greek gods, explaining what modern words come from their names. We learn, for example, that the modern concept of unpleasantly “harping” on something comes from Harpies, winged Greek women who tormented mortals. The first even vaguely insulting thing appears on page 17, where we are told they found the following graffiti (among others) at Vesuvius: “Phileros is a eunuch!”

The first real insult is on page 30 in section 2, Mockery from the Middle Ages, where we find that a blackguard is a low person or a scoundrel. After that things pick up, and we find more of what we came for.

Enough harping about what the book is not, however. If it’s not really an insult dictionary, what is it? Is it worth reading?

To answer the second question is easy: Yes, it’s fun to read and you’ll pick up some fascinating additions to your vocabulary. The first question is a bit more complex. The subtitle should have been the title. The book is a compendium of “history’s best slights, street talk, and slang”—among other things. That first section on Greek and Roman gods, for example, doesn’t fit anywhere.

After the ancient gods, we get buckets of interesting words and phrases from the Middle Ages, colonial times, the Wild West, Victorian times, the Jazz Age, the Depression, the Cold War, and current pop culture, each in its own section. The items explained range through a gamut of topics. Only about 30% (at a guess) are insults. Others are slang or quaint expressions from the period. There are numerous sidebars with words from very specific sources, such as military slang from the Vietnam War and surfer slang. There’s a wonderful two-page spread of quotes from Raymond Chandler’s books in the Depression section. My favorite is “You’re broke, eh? I’ve been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

There many words from more modern times that I thought everyone knew, but I realize that a lot depends on where you live. In the Wild West section, I already knew about necktie parties, painted ladies, the hoosegow, and grubstaking, for example. On the other hand, I delighted in learning that silverware is eatin’ irons.

It was disconcerting at first to run across a few items that I thought were downright wrong. Then it became fun to look for words where the either the book or I was wrong and to try to figure out why we differed in our perceptions of those words. There weren’t many. An example? “Get bent” is listed as getting drunk or high on drugs. In my military days in the 60s, this had an entirely different meaning that I can’t discuss here. You said it to males you were angry with.

If you can get past the distress of finding the book to be something other than what its title suggests, this book is a lot of fun. In fact, you could say it’s the bomb. It falls a bit short of bomb diggety, but it’s definitely outta sight, to use a few of the phrases from the book.

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