A nice insult

rogersgeorge on January 27th, 2012

Somebody criticized Robert Burns’ writing, once. I think you could call his reply “strongly worded” even though he uttered not a single profanity. Many of the metaphors are particularly apt, and it requires a classical education (or access to Google) to “get” all the allusions.

Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus.

Of course I can’t resist making a grammar comment. Did you notice that the entire passage contains not a single main verb? Plenty of participles, and a “was” in a subordinate clause, but the whole thing is really a sentence fragment! At first glance it looks like an extended direct address, as if someone called “Hey you!” and then didn’t follow up with anything.

Actually, Burns isn’t quite so guilty of bad grammar. He left out the main verb (this is called ellipsis), which would have been the second word, “art” or nowadays, “are.” The verb “to be” is easy to leave out in many languages, and we use this particular construction not infrequently when we want to insult someone. Ever hear someone call out “You Sunday driver!” or “you nincompoop!” Same thing.

Only Burns did it rather more eloquently.

Everybody shows a picture of the poet; here's a picture of his home

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