The Evolution of the American Insult

December 27, 2012

Blogs around this time are full of reflections on the meaning of Christmas, the passage of time, the spirituality of the solstice, and recipes for eggnog. I eschew these subjects for a recollection and question around a much used phrase.

I had not been in the United States very long before I heard new and creative ways to insult someone with whom you may have serious issues. Sometime in the seventies I was working in a bar in Union City NJ. The job required me to dress in a scratchy polyester imitation monk’s habit. My shift started at 7 PM and finished when the place closed at around 2 AM. In those hours I would serve wine, onion soup and cheese platters to the not so sophisticated clientele sitting on hard wooden seats in what pretended to be a monk’s wine cellar; an imitation of an original venture in New York City. Among my rough and ready customers was a rotund red headed American Irishman, Dave. Dave was intrigued with the first Englishman he had ever met in the flesh. He took me under his wing in a strictly unofficial way and introduced me to some fascinating bars on Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City and North Bergen, and more on Second Avenue in New York City. Chinatown was also part of his introduction to food and much drinking in the NY Metro area and we often ate there around 3.30 AM after my shift. It was only twenty minutes away from the bar via the Holland Tunnel.

It was during our transit to one of these dining experiences that I heard the first of many new to my ears American insults. Dave had a flamboyant driving style that involved a lot of loud shouting to any other driver he judged lacking in his level of skill. Most of this shouting took place in the safety of his car, a beat up Ford Galaxie. On this occasion however he actually rolled down his window to pass on his advice and commentary more clearly to a pedestrian who thought it was safe to cross Canal Street at the same time Dave was using it to get to 21 Mott Street where our favorite restaurant, Hop Kee Club 66, was waiting for us. Dave began the dialogue saying, “Hey, Mother F****r! where in hell are you goin’?” An equally inflammatory response was returned rapidly to which Dave replied, “..and your Mother Sucks Elephants!” in a tone and volume he was sure would clinch the exchange in his favor. I could see that the unlucky pedestrian was genuinely insulted and began walking in a menacing way toward the car to continue the conversation physically. Dave solved this new development by flooring the gas and we shot off toward our dinner. I was mightily interested and over our fried oysters quizzed Dave on the etymology of the phrase. Dave’s command of the English language was sketchy at best and involved a lot of grunting and stock phrases. For example; to express indifference Dave would growl, “The f*** I care!” To show contempt he would hiss “f*****g ass-hole” and so on. And so it took a while to find that the new insult was meant to imply that the receivers Mother was such a low life, such an awful human being, that she would even fellate pachyderms. Over the Moo Goo Gai Pan I also discovered that there were alternate abbreviated forms. E.g. “Ya Motha sucks” and “You suck!” It was obvious to me that this insult should be limited in use to mostly impolite male company, and so it proved.

It was with a shock some twenty years later that I found the phrase, “That Sucks” being used by high school friends of my children, and probably my children too behind my back. Did they know the likely source, the probable etymology of the phrase they used to express not so much a revolting insult but an opinion on unfavorable circumstances? Did they know anything of the pachydermic connection and the deviant, not to mention impossible sexual practice from which this seemingly harmless comment could have been derived?

The Elephants are saying nothing.

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One Response to “The Evolution of the American Insult”

  1. Anne-Louise said

    How things have changed! I recently heard it used by a speaker at a conference and was mightly offended.

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