Pablo Picasso (I)

Join me now, if you will, for a brief but thorough exploration of the British English lexicon of insult. (You’ll see why we’re doing this in part II.)

Let’s say that you want to insult a friend; you want to use bad language, but you also want to use the mot juste. The reason why you want to insult him is given by the following scenario. You’re in another town on business. On your way back to the station you pass a comic shop; being something of a devotee of the medium, you go in and browse for a while. While there your attention is drawn to something rare and valuable – an Amazing Fantasy 15, a set of all ten Luther Arkwrights, whatever. You’re tempted, but – you tell yourself – you can’t quite justify the expense. But still… It preys on your mind, and after a week or so you think, never mind the expense, I’m buying it, and begin to make plans for a return trip to the town. At this point your friend (remember him?) mentions that he’s going to the town the following weekend. If you give him the money, will he make the purchase and bring it back to you? Of course he will! Nothing would be easier!

Now it’s a week later. Your friend’s let you down. You’re not very pleased with him.

If he got drunk the night before, overslept and never made the trip at all, he’s an arsehole.
If he went but completely forgot what he’d agreed to do and didn’t remember until you reminded him, he’s a prat (dickhead, pillock and wazzock are in the same area).
If he not only forgot what he’d agreed to do but refuses to believe you when you remind him, maintaining that you’d lent him the money for some other reason completely, he’s a wanker (or possibly a dick).
If he forgot what he’d agreed to do, then forgets to bring you back the money, then asks you for a loan, he’s a twat.
If he’s spent some of the money and denies it until you make him count it out, he’s a prick.
If he’s spent some of the money and attempts to justify doing so when you call him on it, he’s a git.
If he’s spent all the money and comes out with a series of plausible reasons why he can’t possibly pay you back straight away, he’s a bastard.
If he’s spent all the money and refuses to talk to you about it or even meet, he’s a shit.
If he’s spent all the money, openly admits it, refuses to admit that he’s done anything wrong and tells you you shouldn’t be so uptight about it, he’s a cunt.

I think that about covers it. (That last term, incidentally, has never been exemplified better than in the second episode of Queer as Folk. Vince: “He’s a cunt, Nathan.” Says it all.)

One peculiarity of the BritEng slang lexicon, as I understand it, is that there’s no real equivalent to the AmEng ‘asshole’. ‘Prat’ and its cognates are close: like ‘prat’, ‘asshole’ is a light enough word to convey banal, everyday contempt and irritation. But there’s a certain fondness about the contempt expressed by ‘prat’; ‘asshole’ has more of a critical edge. An asshole, in other words, is a useless idiot, but he’s not just someone who can’t help being a useless idiot – there’s a suggestion of dogged persistence, even malevolence. I think it’s a concept that doesn’t really exist in Britslang, at least not until you get to the more definitively offensive levels of ‘twat’ and beyond.

It seems that Italian is more like AmEng, although the word in question doesn’t translate as ‘asshole’. But to find out what it is, you’ll have to read part II.

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