The Bible excels in put-downs, so it is no surprise that many of our most famous prelates and Catholic
authors have indulged in some rather Old Testament-style insults. Fr John Chaloner investigates In 1863, Macmillan's Magazine published a review by the Reverend Charles Kingsley of Froude's History of England. Kingsley used this review as a means to accuse John Henry Newman, of saying, inter alia, that truth for its own sake "need not be and on the whole ought not to be".
Newman, in typically robust fashion, protested that this was a "grave and gratuitous slander" and that he had never said such words or anything in the least like them. As correspondence between them brought less than a full apology from Kingsley, and as the accusation had been directed not only to himself but also to the Catholic clergy in general, Newman decided to publish the correspondence. His delightful caricature of Kingsley's argument includes the following: "Well," says Mr Kingsley, "if you are quite sure you did not say it, I'll take your word for it —1 really will."
"My word! I am dumb. Somehow I thought that it was my word that happened to he on trial."
It is a fine example of a "put-down" — just one step removed from an insult, and insults have been with us a very long time.
In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, even though cultivated into an art form, the insults are withering.
If you are an "idler", then you are "comparable to a stone covered in filth" or a "lump of dung" (22:1-2). Worse, if you are a wife and you have a lot to say, but your husband is quiet, then it is comparable to "elderly feet climbing up a sandhill" (25:20).
Worse still, if you are a spiteful woman then this will make your face "as grim as any bear's" (25:17). How's that for an insult? Or this: "Slack hands and sagging knees indicate a wife who makes her husband wretched." (25:32). The mind boggles. But women were not the only targets of EcclesiaSticus's venom. Whereas the "wise man's knowledge will increase like a flood", the wisdom of a fool "is like the wreckage of a house, the knowledge of a dolt is incoherent talk" (21:13,18).
Jesus suffered many an insult. One of the milder sort was uttered by Nathaniel who, on learning that Jesus came from Nazareth, retorted: "From Nazareth? Can anything good come from that place?" But, on the other hand, the Lord himself was not averse to offering the scribes and Pharisees an insult or two: "You blind guides! Straining out gnats and swallowing camels!" (Matthew 23:24).
"Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs that look handsome on the outside, but inside are full of dead men's bones and every kind of corruption." (27-28). All pretty strong stuff.
So it's not surprising that the insult and put-down are at home in the Church. By all accounts Blessed Pope John XXIII was quite a dab hand at the pithy remark, albeit with a smile.
To a Religious Superior who introduced herself as "Mother Superior of the Holy Spirit" he replied: "Are you, indeed? Well, I'm only the Vicar of Christ."
And it seems that on one occasion he was not too complimentary to the Roman Curia and Vatican personnel. When asked how many worked in the Vatican he is said to have replied: "Oh, about half of them."
The Faber Book of Anecdotes (1985) includes the following story. As Papal Nuncio to France the future John XXIII was a guest at a dinner where seated next to him was a lady who wore a very revealing dress.
He appeared not to notice until towards the end of the meal when he offered her an apple. She declined but he insisted: "Please do take it, madam. It was only after Eve ate the apple that she became aware of how little Pope John XXVIII was known for his kindness, and razor wit she had on."
Mother expert practitioner of the put-down was G K Chesterton. He was tall and corpulent, whereas his contemporary George Bernard Shaw was tall and thin.
Shaw reportedly said to Chesterton: "If I were as fat as you, I'd hang myself." Chesterton met this insult with: "And if I had it in mind to hang myself, I'd use you as the rope."
Another great Catholic author, Hilaire Belloc, Chesterton's contemporary, is said to have gone a stage further by insulting himself. During a train journey a man sitting opposite to him in the railway carriage was
reading a copy of Belloc's History of England. Bence asked the man how much he had paid for it, gave him the same amount, took the book from him and promptly threw it out of the window.
But the undisputed master of the insult and put-down was Dr Samuel Johnson. It so happens that a delightful little book entitled Samuel Johnson's Insults: A Compendium of his finest snubs, slights and insults has just been published by Atlantic Books. It begins by telling us that the Age of Johnson was an unrivalled age of insults. "Never has abuse been served up with more zest than in the 18th century... Insolence and contempt were a favoured mode of public discourse."
If we despair of modern politics we are assured that even the most negative campaigning today "looks tame beside the average 18th-century parliamentary election".
Johnson achieved the unenviable accolade of a "world-class curmudgeon" because "he adored a good argument and relished verbal combat". We are told that he "never shrank from abuse — verbal assaults only energised him" for, in his own words, "it is surely better a man should be abused than forgotten".
The Compendium is structured around Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755 and it contains a vocabulary of abuse with anecdotes from Johnson's writing and conversation stirred in.
The result is a cocktail of inebriating barb and wit. Beginning with "abbeylubber" (a slothful loiterer in a religious house, under pretence of retirement or austerity).
We taste, for example, "canter" (a term of reproach for hypocrites, who talk formally of religion, without obeying it) and we learn that although Johnson was a pious man, "he was so hard to work with that he often prompted people to take the Lord's name in vain".
We savour the old meaning of "enthusiast" which, in Johnson's day, changed from one who vainly imagines a private revelation, or a religious fanatic who thought God spoke to him, to its present meaning.
We sip from the verb "sconce" (to fix a fine) and learn that when Johnson was sconced at university for skipping lectures he retorted: "Sir, you have sconced me two-pence for non-attendance at a lecture not worth a penny." Mind you, it has to be said that this vocabulary and, possibly, any putdown, insult, snub, slight or effrontery, even without being directed to anyone in particular, would be considered very "non politically correct", at least by those who embrace it in its more extreme forms.
Assuming that anyone reads this article, I await any insults which may come my way.
How about "clotpoll" or "dotard", "fopdoodle" or "fribbler", "jackpudding" or "jobbernowl" for a start? (You can discover what they mean if you read the book.) I am sure that they will be positively good for my soul.