A Defense of Personal Attacks

I am constantly hearing folks criticize those who resort to personal attacks in public interaction and debate. Usually, the ones who squawk their faux-indignation the loudest are those who routinely engage in such behavior themselves.

The truth is that personal attacks have a long, colorful, and humorous place in human history and have been practiced for centuries by every culture known to man.  Where would we be without the cutting-edge commentary of Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, and Oscar Wilde to name a few? Add to that the anonymous proverbs that have been handed down for generations and we have a veritable plethora of creative insults available to heap scorn upon those we disdain.

My favorite personal attack is the obituary of William Jennings Bryan by H.L. Mencken. It’s too long to post here so I provide a link below:


Here are some of my personal favorites. Feel free to add your own favorites in the comments section:

“It makes me look as if I were straining a stool.”

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) on a portrait of him by Graham Sutherland (1903-80)

“It resembles a tortoiseshell cat having a fit in a plate of tomatoes.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910) on J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship’

“Be friendly with the Russian, but take care that you have a rock ready on your chest.”

Traditional Ukrainian saying

“Cursed be your mother’s anus. Cursed be your father’s testicles.”

Traditional Yoruba verbal dueling curse

“May the curse of Mary Malone and her nine blind illegitimate children chase you so far over the hills of Damnation that the Lord himself can’t find you with a telescope.”

Traditional Irish curse

“May you wander over the face of the earth forever, never sleep twice in the same bed, never drink water twice from the same well, and never cross the same river twice in a year.”

Traditional gypsy curse

“An Englishman will burn his bed to catch a flea.”

Traditional Turkish proverb

“America is one long expectoration.”

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

“Somebody’s boring me. I think it’s me.”

Dylan Thomas (1914-53)

“It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs. Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.”

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) on Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)

“He sang like a hinge.”

Ethel Merman on Cole Porter (1892-1964)

“By God no, if it had been, I should have run away myself.”

The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) replying to a question from the Russian ambassador on whether Beethoven’s Battle Symphony was like the actual battle of Waterloo

“I like Wagner’s music better than any other music. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without people hearing what one says. That is a great advantage.”

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) on Richard Wagner

“I love Wagner, but the music I prefer is that of a cat hung up by its tail outside a window and trying to stick to the panes of glass with its claws.”

Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) on Richard Wagner

“Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for forty-five minutes.”

Aaron Copland on Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

“Rachmaninov’s immortalizing totality was his scowl. He was a six and a half foot scowl.”

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Russian composer, on Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943), Russian composer

“She would be like Richard Wagner if only she looked a bit more feminine.”

Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), poet and writer, on Dame Ethel Smyth

“Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910) on Richard Wagner’

“Actually I always loathed the Viennese quack. I used to stalk him down dark alleys of thought, and now we shall never forget the sight of old, flustered Freud seeking to unlock his door with the point of his umbrella.”

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

“You get the impression this is another dirty wop, an organ grinder.”

W. H. Auden (1907-73) on Pope Pius XII (1875-1958)

“… was brilliant to the top of his army boots.”

David Lloyd George (1863-1945) on Douglas Haig (1861-1928), British field marshal

“A crafty and lecherous old hypocrite whose very statue seems to gloat on the wenches as they walk the States House yard.”

William Cobbett (1763-1835), on Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), American statesman and scientist

“He slept more than any other president, whether by day or night. Nero fiddled, but Coolidge only snored.”

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) on Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933

“He would kill his own mother just so that he could use her skin to make a drum to beat his own praises.”

Margot Asquith (1864-1945), writer and wife of Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, on Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

“How can they tell?”

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) on hearing that American President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) had died

“I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”

Winston Churchill


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