The most hilarious episode of the American TV comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm has Larry David sitting with new acquaintances playing poker. Exasperated at being successfully bluffed by one of his competitors, David throws in his hand and explodes with the supreme American no-no, "You cunt!" Silence and disapproving frowns all round. People invent excuses to leave ... It is at once the funniest and the most excruciating moment in the whole series and for that scene alone, David deserves a knighthood (or some equally absurd American equivalent).
The use of the c-word quickly escalates into the insulted card player having to take a leave of absence from his job, followed by accusations of misogyny and wife-beating, and culminating in a visit from social services' domestic abuse unit.
During the year I spent lecturing in Boston, I found myself countless times in similarly tricky waters. Having a mouth like a sewer (as my mother never tires of telling me) is so much more awkward in the Land of the Free than in buttoned-up and class-bound England. The paradox of Uncle Sam is his willingness to allow you to carry a concealed weapon while casting you as an unconscionable pariah merely for uttering ancient Anglo-Saxon formulations for everyday bodily parts and functions. In the US, even etiquette is trigger-happy.
"Is calling someone a 'cunt' always a way of insulting that person?" asks Thomas Conley in Toward a Rhetoric of Insult. As with any speech act, the apparently simple question resists an easy answer. In fact (and unsurprisingly), "no term is inherently abusive or belittling"; rather "it all depends on scenario, or situation". As this suggests, there is nothing especially revelatory about any of this, which is a shortcoming that Conley concedes at the outset: "the particularities of insult are almost infinite, and so not much more than a beginning to consideration of the subject is feasible". Given the acknowledged limitations of the study, its title is somewhat optimistic; indeed nothing resembling a "rhetoric" ever emerges.
The strongest parts of the book are the explorations of Classical invective. There are some choice accounts of Cicero and his less-than-glowing descriptions of Mark Antony: "where a belch would be disgusting, he threw up and filled his own lap - and the entire dais! - with gobbets of food reeking of wine!" (Antony, clearly miffed by such descriptions, arranged Cicero's assassination.) On the basis of evidence from Cicero, Conley assembles a list of 18 insultable vices. Again, none is particularly surprising: embarrassing family origin, physical appearance, gluttony and drunkenness, unacceptable sexual conduct, cowardice and so on.
But Conley's book never amounts to more than a diverse, and indeed sometimes rambling, set of examples. In a single chapter we hear about Falstaff, Monty Python, German and French Reformation satire, George W. Bush, caricaturist James Gillray, the lyrics of Eminem and Asian table manners. Sweeping generalisations appear to offer Conley no qualms: "Cicero and Monty Python are all part of the same cultural tradition." Really?
In places the book is factually incorrect. Charles I was not a Catholic, Fulvia was Octavian's mother-in-law not his wife, and Sir Toby Belch's "bum-bailey" is a bailiff or sheriff, not a cricket.
The book ends with a rather limp plea asking us to all calm down: "to alleviate the material and psychological conditions that caused the insulted party to respond so angrily and violently" - a noble sentiment in these times of fundamentalism's over-sensitivity to what it perceives to be insulting, but not one that stands any more chance of reconciling the insulter and the insulted than Larry David has of ever being polite.
Toward a Rhetoric of Insult
By Thomas Conley
University of Chicago Press
Published 12 July 2010