Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

'A Modest Person with Much to Be Modest About', a List of Great Insults from History

Today, most memes, jibes and satire are aimed at unprincipled politicians. As bent as a dog’s back leg, mainstream media news-quacks are constantly in the crosshairs of meme enthusiasts.

Migrant and ethnic-related issues offer rich picking for meme makers. Such is the power of memes that their influence has been described as the new mainstream media.

Not so long ago there was a richness of language sadly missing from today’s vocabulary. Back when journalism was an occupation one could be proud of writers could hold their own in any bout of verbal jousting.

The English king’s chief groveler Lord Sandwich bitingly addressed the editor of The North Briton. ‘Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of the pox.’ John Wilkes replied: ‘That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your politics or your mistress.’ This exchange has wrongly been attributed to Gladstone and Disraeli.

Best argument against democracy

It was an era when people could communicate with considerable panache. Most of us will have smiled at the exchange between Winston Churchill and Lady Astor who had said to him: ‘If you were my husband I would give you poison.’ Churchill replied, ‘if you were my wife I would take it.’

This quip attributed to Britain’s unelected warlord was a music hall joke that was doing the rounds before Churchill was born. Much of the wit and quips credited to Churchill were wrongly ascribed to him.

Britain’s wartime unelected premier has taken credit for many celebrated jibes. Among the best examples are, ‘A modest little person with much to be modest about.’

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw detested Winston Churchill. Well aware that the object of his ire was best known for his disreputable cohorts, he wrote: ‘I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one.’ Winston replied, ‘Cannot possibly attend the first night, will attend second, if there is one.’

Insults that carried a venomous sting must include Clarence Darrow’s: ‘I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.’

Every famous person has their critics but as Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius surmised, ‘There has never been a monument to celebrate a critic’s life.’

Journalist Ernest Hemingway had his share of faultfinders. One of the best was William Faulkner’s summing up of the war correspondent’s writing style. ‘He has never been known to use a word that might send the reader to a dictionary.’

One hapless author received a memo from Moses Hadas. ‘Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.’


U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was known for his sharp wit. ‘He can compress the most words into the smallest idea of any man I know.’ One of Lincoln’s remarks still carries weight because it applies to so many politicians today: ‘It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.’

The wit of composers was unmatched: ‘If he’s been making shell cases during the war it might have been better for music.’ – Saint-Saens speaking of Maurice Ravel. Otherwise, ‘He’d be better off shovelling snow than scribbling on manuscript paper,’ opined Richard Strauss when remarking on the works of Schoenberg.

Johannes Brahms, said to be second only to Beethoven was no slouch when it came to put-downs: ‘If there is anyone here whom I have not insulted, I beg his pardon.’

Mark Twain, renowned for his sharp wit once said; ‘I didn’t attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.’

Those in a poor relationship may take heart from Stephen Bishop’s remark: ‘I feel so miserable without you. It is almost like having you here.’

Equally sardonic the opinion of Irvin S. Cobb: ‘I have just heard about his illness. Let us hope it is nothing trivial.’ Attributed to Oscar Wilde is the remark, ‘Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.’

After they go brings us neatly to the subject of the afterlife which prompted Jack E. Leonard to surmise; ‘There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.’

Support Russia Insider - Go Ad-Free!

Our commenting rules: You can say pretty much anything except the F word. If you are abusive, obscene, or a paid troll, we will ban you. Full statement from the Editor, Charles Bausman.