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An insult is an expression or statement (or sometimes behavior) which is disrespectful or scornful. Insults may be intentional or accidental. An insult may be factual, but at the same time pejorative, such as the word "inbred".
Lacan considered insults a primary form of social interaction, central to the imaginary order – "a situation that is symbolized in the 'Yah-boo, so are you' of the transitivist quarrel, the original form of aggressive communication".[clarification needed]
Erving Goffman points out that every "crack or remark set up the possibility of a counter-riposte, topper, or squelch, that is, a comeback". He cites the example of possible interchanges at a dance in a school gym:
- A one-liner: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Crumbles"
- A comeback: Boy: "Care to dance?" Girl: "No, I came here to play basketball" Boy: "Sorry, I should have guessed by the way you're dressed".
Backhanding is referred to as slapping someone using the back of the hand instead of the palm—that is generally a symbolic, less forceful blow. Correspondingly, a backhanded (or left-handed) compliment, or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as, or accompanied by, a compliment, especially in situations where the belittling or condescension is intentional.
Examples of backhanded compliments include, but not limited to:
A bittersweet comment is a kind of misinterpretation, mixing positive lines with negative connotation, which may be hinting that he or she is clumsy, informal or awkward hospitality, has trust issues, is attention-seeking, insensitive or inattentive, and using negative connotation for comical effect, and mixing bold lines with positive word play.
Negging is a type of backhanded compliment used for emotional manipulation or as a seduction method. The term was coined and prescribed by pickup artists. Negging is often viewed as a straightforward insult rather than as a pick-up line, in spite of the fact that proponents of the technique traditionally stress it is not an insult.
A personal attack is an insult which is directed at some attribute of the person.
The Federal Communications Commission's personal attack rule defined a personal attack as one made upon the honesty, character, integrity, or like personal qualities in the Communications Act of 1934.
Verbal insults often take a phallic or pudendal form; this includes offensive profanity, and may also include insults to one's sexuality. There are also insults pertaining to the extent of one's sexual activity. For example, according to James Bloodworth, "incel" has become a "ubiquitous online insult", sometimes being used against men who blame and harass women for not wanting to sleep with them.
The flyting was a formalized sequence of literary insults: invective or flyting, the literary equivalent of the spell-binding curse, uses similar incantatory devices for opposite reasons, as in Dunbar's Flyting with Kennedy.
"A little-known survival of the ancient 'flytings', or contests-in-insults of the Anglo-Scottish bards, is the type of xenophobic humor once known as 'water wit' in which passengers in small boats crossing the Thames ... would insult each other grossly, in all the untouchable safety of being able to get away fast."
Samuel Johnson once triumphed in such an exchange: "a fellow having attacked him with some coarse raillery, Johnson answered him thus, 'Sir, your wife, under pretence of keeping a bawdy-house, is a receiver of stolen goods.'"
Various typologies of insults have been proposed over the years. Ethologist Desmond Morris, noting that "almost any action can operate as an Insult Signal if it is performed out of its appropriate context – at the wrong time or in the wrong place", classes such signals in ten 'basic categories":
Elizabethans took great interest in such analyses, distinguishing out, for example, the "fleering frump ... when we give a mock with a scornful countenance as in some smiling sort looking aside or by drawing the lip awry, or shrinking up the nose". Shakespeare humorously set up an insult-hierarchy of seven-fold "degrees. The first, the Retort Courteous; the second, the Quip Modest; the third, the Reply Churlish; the fourth, the Reproof Valiant; the fifth, the Countercheck Quarrelsome; the sixth, the Lie with Circumstance; the seventh, the Lie Direct".
What qualifies as an insult is also determined both by the individual social situation and by changing social mores. Thus on one hand the insulting "obscene invitations of a man to a strange girl can be the spicy endearments of a husband to his wife".