Sharp Tongued English

The Arts

Sir John Gielgud made so many horrendous gaffes that there’s a book about them called ‘Gielgoodies’ – the Shakespearian actor was forever insulting friends by mistake. He was blunt and thoughtless, but it must have been difficult to take offence when he’d say, ‘I don’t think Pemberton’s a good designer. You want someone who will just come in and do something in red.’

Honesty can only be pulled off by someone with charisma. From anyone else it simply looks rude. I like the line from the widow to the commiserating divorcee in TV’s ‘Grace & Frankie’; ‘At least my husband’s dead. You have twenty years of being alone ahead of you.’ Oscar Wilde as approached by someone who said, ‘I feel there is a conspiracy of silence against me these days. What do you think I ought to do?’ ‘Join it,’ said Oscar. And from Gielgud again, spoken to Maggie Smith during rehearsal; ‘Don’t screw your face up like that, Maggie. You look like that terrible old woman you played in that dreadful film.’

I’m fairly high up there with him on the gaffe level. I was once at a film premiere party with a client who was bored and being rude about the other guests, complaining that ‘they let anyone in these days’. Going along with the fun I pointed to a scruffily dressed senior loading up at the buffet and replied, ‘Yes, look, there’s Old Man Steptoe.’ To which the client replied, ‘That’s my husband.’

A New Statesman competition ran a ‘What I Should Have Said/ What I Said’ competition, one entry of which was, ‘The traffic’s probably really heavy tonight’/ ‘Maybe he’s dead.’ Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better if he had never lived.’ He was referring to Balwin’s place in history, of course, but it still doesn’t take out the sting.

Sometimes you don’t even have to speak to cause offence. I was working with a producer who, during a casting session for a lady of certain years, slipped me a note intercepted by the actress herself when it fell on the floor. She read what it said; ‘Too Old!!’

They say the perfect English insult is one where you walk away thinking you’ve been complimented, like something said to a friend of mine; ‘You’re so obviously brilliant at saving money.’ The actor Charles Grodin was waiting to be seen by a casting agent when his PA, a tough old Englishwoman, spotted him and said, ‘It would be so much nicer if you weren’t here.’ The English can wring a withering insult out of the words ‘rather difficult’ – it’s all part of an arsenal of understatement that allowed my PA to write off a bomb blast that might have killed her as ‘tiresome’.

W H Auden’s line, ‘I have no gun but I can spit’ gave rise to the title for the much-missed satirical TV series ‘Spitting Image’, which followed a long line through history of the English biting back at their leaders. Scatology and sex were woven in with political invective for maximum effect, but the language used to express harsh criticism is eloquent and softens the blow even as it lands.

Which is a long way round of explaining why there is no single instance of the word ‘fuck’ in any Bryant & May novel. Sweariness is limited in power, especially if overused. Recently the big business dynasty series ‘Succession’ was so overloaded with repetitive expletives that it became impossible to imagine that these were brilliant captains of industry. Real power can lie in the facility of language, but few bother to access it.

16 comments on “Sharp Tongued English”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    I love saying to unpleasant, argumentative people: “I refuse to have a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.” I also once worked with someone who would dismiss thick people by saying: “If I had wanted to talk to a vegetable, I would have brought my own potato.”

  2. Brooke says:

    Dr. Martin to female from US who has delivered a ridiculous harangue, “I can’t understand a word; your accent is too thick.”

  3. Vivienne says:

    Swearing is interesting. I think it used to happen more amongst a class group- whether lower or upper. Not so much just in the street. A fish and chip shop/cafe near me has WTF painted boldly on its walls. The F is supposed to stand for fish, but my children wouldn’t have thought that plausible and would have wanted the truth. My daughter at about 5 pondered on the F word and decided it couldn’t be Foul, as they shouted that out at football matches!

    I get quite bored when reading that someone used language of the sort ‘ new swear words entering my vocabulary’. I’m not sure now that there are any very taboo words left.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    Malcolm Tucker: “I’ve never seen anybody look so f***ing ugly with just one head.” and “Feet off the furniture you Oxbridge t***, you’re not on a punt now.”

    I rest my case.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    My favourite high table insult is “Tony Blair’s christianity is epiphenomenal”, said I think by Ted Honderich

  6. Gary Thompson says:

    My favourite Tuckerism is “Come the f*** in, or f*** the f*** off”, an example of swearing done well.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    I have a shirt which has the uncensored version of ‘Tucker’s Law’, which reads: “If some c**t can f**k something up, then that c**t will pick the worst possible time to f**k it up, because that c**t’s a c**t.” I have worn this going out, and nobody has ever commented – possibly because it’s true.

  8. Roger says:

    “The fucking fucker’s fucking fucked.”
    -Mechanic’s verdict on an engine failure.

  9. Peregrine says:


  10. Agatha Hamilton says:

    I think ‘fuck’ is a very versatile word. I use it all the time. It suits all occasions, good or bad, and works in the heat of the moment when you can’t think of something more subtle.

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Roger, I came across your mechanic’s quote in a Spike Milligan book, too, probably the one about the war in North Africa, and probably in a similar context. “Gunner who? Rommel who?” I think it was called.

  12. Ian Luck says:

    Spike Milligan (he would have been 100 this year) wrote several volumes of his war diaries, and they have the power to make you laugh, and then a few pages on, cry like a baby. They get darker in tone as they progress – he’s quite blunt about his shell-shock. Mostly though, they are incredibly funny, and his descriptions of people he didn’t like much are superb. An officer is described as : ‘A dog’s bum with a hat on’; someone else is described as: ‘Having eyes so deep set, it appeared as though someone was standing behind him, looking through two holes in the back of his head’. Of a Sergeant, he said: “He hated my guts – I don’t know how, he’d never seen them.” My favourite of all was when he had to go to the ‘Glasshouse’ (military prison) for seven days, for some minor offence. Presenting himself at the guardhouse, he said: “The Military Policeman told me that they only had two rules: keep your mouth shut, and your bowels open. He then gave me a cup of tea that did both.”

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, and a number of books that defy description such as “Transports of Delight” which has unbelievable photographs (a carriage pulled by two elephants) accompanied by impossible captions (“A number 139A going from Poona Cantonment to the Empire Bioscope to see the original silent version of Beau Geste with Ronald Colman. Note Gary Cooper dressed as Legionnaire at top window, awaiting the sound version.” to accompany the elephant picture.)

  14. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – thank you for reminding me of that. I don’t have a copy at present, but I remember reading it, and it making me laugh so much it hurt – much like his description of the runaway steam-powered ‘Easement’ (toilet) in his novel ‘Puckoon’. On one of his TV shows, he did a sketch playing a David Attenborough type character, who encounters a red post box, delivering a speech that it is a primitive idol that has to be constantly fed with bits of paper, and says that it’s belly is opened by the blue clad priests and the paper is removed. What happens to it after that… Nobody knows. My very favourite sketch of his, is one he performs with the equally brilliant Marty Feldman. It’s about two rival undertakers who constantly try to outdo each other. Like some of the very best British humour, it’s actually quite dark, and similar in tone to the work of the suave, urbane, and darkly funny Dave Allen.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    The book ‘Scorn’, compiled by Matthew Parris, is well worth owning if you want a collection of witty retorts and acid tongued put downs. Hundreds of examples, which I guarantee, after reading, you will think to yourself: ‘I wish that I’d said that. ‘

  16. Helen Martin says:

    “You will, —–, you will.”

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