The Art Of The Insult: How To Win A Swearing Contest With Dignity

A few years ago, Joe Posnanski—formerly a Kansas City sportswriter, and today famous as a JoePa apologist—interviewed me about one of my books and posted my answers on his blog. He asked me whether, if I'd become a major league pitcher, I still would have become a writer. I emailed, "No. I would have continued becoming an asshole until I'd perfected that persona to a degree even Jose Canseco hasn't." He told his fans, "I told you Pat's good at swearing. I would say that Pat Jordan is the best curser in journalism today, and I say that with great esteem because I think the second best is my friend and hero, Scott Raab."

That's when things went straight to hell in a handbasket. It seems this Mr. Raab, an Esquire writer, took offense at the Polski claiming I was the best swearer in journalism. Raab emailed him: "All due respect, but I'd kick Jordan's ancient, bony, hairless ass in a curse-off any day of the fucking week. (Except on Shabbat, when I go to synagogue.)"

Ancient? Bony? That prick! I fired back, "Polski, tell Raab I got more muscles in my fucking hair than he has in his fucking body. Also, I stopped shaving my body when I stopped competing in bodybuilding contests when I was 53. I'll bury the fucking wimp in a curse-off. I got mine the old-fashioned way, in the locker room. Where'd he get his, the fucking press box?"

No sooner had I tapped my "send" button than I realized I'd made a terrible mistake. I'd jumped, with both feet, into a pissing contest with a splash. I knew it would make fools of us both. No one ever "wins" a pissing contest—"Asshole!" "Prick!" "Shithead!"—unless one, or both, of the combatants adheres assiduously to the rules of such contests, which I now refer to as "The Art of the Insult." The first rule of insults, which I had already broken out of the box, is never lose your fucking temper. Hot is bad; cool is, well, cool. A dish best served cold, and all that. All other rules follow from that first one.

Never initiate an insult. It smacks of intellectual weakness, inferiority, insecurity, an inability to deal with differences of opinion through reason. An insult is always the last refuge of the confused. However, you must always defend yourself against that first offensive insult, preferably by counterpunching (see Ali vs. Foreman), rather than swinging wildly from your heels. In a battle of insults, you want to win on points, not a knockout. A knockout implies a lucky punch, and/or an unfair advantage of brute power. You want to win as the underdog, not the heavy favorite. You're David to his Goliath, even if you aren't, really. So you insult him with slung pebbles of subtlety, while he lunges at you brutally with his unwieldy club: "Asshole! Shithead! Cocksucker!" In a battle of insults, subtlety is always the point. It makes brute strength look not strong, but pathetic.

That's why insults must always be distinctly personal to your adversary, rather than generic expletives. Example: When I entered a bodybuilding contest at the age of 50, 6- foot-1 and 185 pounds, another bodybuilder, who was 23, 5-foot-4 and 235 pounds, told me, "You're an old man and you got no fuckin' muscles." I replied, "Yes. That may be true. But one day, you too will be old. I, however, will never be short and stupid."

Which leads me so brilliantly, I must say, to the next rule of insults: Be witty, hopefully literate, too, but never vulgar or crude, except as a stratagem to knock your adversary off his game. No matter how literate your insults may be, you always want to toss in a vulgarity at the appropriate moment, like a changeup with the bases loaded, to confuse your adversary. Pacing is everything. Which is why it is always best in a War of Insults to assume different personas with each insult. Bemused. Effete, even. Macho, bullying. Removed, above it all. Sarcastic. Bored. Bitter. Dismissive. Angry. Condescending.

I like condescension a lot. It's what us old guys have instead of youth. The purpose of these alternating personas is to confuse your adversary to such a degree that he loses his temper. Your goal is always to get your adversary to lose his temper while you retain your bemused cool. That only infuriates him even more. And even if he, blunderingly, does manage to hurt you with a low blow, you still must retain your amused smile even while you're pissing blood. Remember, he's the bully who is most dangerous when he smells blood. You, however, are noble and courageous. You didn't initiate this war, but you are defending yourself in it. And you're doing it by always smiling through the pain. Imagine how scary that is to your adversary, knowing he's in a war with a man he can never hurt.

Which leads to the next rule. If you are a man, never, never, Never, NEVER get into a War of Insults with a woman. That is a war in which you can only hurt your opponent, but can never beat her. Perceived weakness is her strength. (See Hillary's tears in the 2008 New Hampshire primary.) Women win, simply by absorbing blows; even when there are no blows (see Hillary's accusations of sexism in that primary). You are always Goliath!

Finally, the last rule, and the most obvious. Never get into a pissing contest when you are, well … pissed, i.e. stoned, whacked out, falling-down drunk, whichever. You forfeit all your considerable advantages when your mind is cloudy with drink or drug. Those make you think you're more clever than you are at the moment (see Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Kubla Khan), and then you wake the next morning in shame, with a head splitting from the discordant echoes of last night's stupidity.

I have acquired these rules over 70-odd years, from my own experiences as a writer and, earlier, a minor league pitcher of a much heralded, aborted, and disastrous career. I heard more than my fair share of insults while standing on the pitcher's mound in, say, McCook, Neb., with the bases loaded, again. "Take the bum out! He's done on both sides!" As a fledgling writer six years later, the very first words I heard from a magazine editor were, "What makes a dumb jock like you think you'll ever be a writer?" Mostly, during those years, I was always on the receiving end of others' insults, too tongue-tied myself to respond. So I began to study, from the cheap seats, the insult repartee of others more clever than myself. Ol' Diz, for example. When Dizzy Dean, the Cardinals' pitcher, struck out three Detroit Tiger hitters in one inning in the 1934 World Series, he walked off the mound to taunts from the Tigers' fans. One woman screamed, "Mr. Dean, if I was your wife I'd feed you poison!" Ol' Diz, smiling, said, "Ma'am, if I was your husband, I'd take it." Now that's witty, in a way Muhammad Ali never was.

Ali's idea of cleverness was to call Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston monkeys, apes, and Uncle Toms. But those cool, hardened opponents never took the bait and lost their tempers the way some of our more literate citizens have when insulted. Take William F. Buckley, for example. On his TV program, Firing Line, Buckley was famous for his supercilious erudition when matching wits with his guests. One such guest, a drunken Gore Vidal, called Buckley, apropos of Buckley's stance on the Vietnam War, "a crypto-fascist." Buckley became apoplectic, spluttering red-faced, "You goddamned queer! Call me a Nazi again and I'll sock you in the nose and you'll stay plastered."

Vidal, it seems, had a genius for causing even his most brilliant adversaries to lose their temper. Once, on Dick Cavett's TV show, Vidal infuriated Norman Mailer by comparing him, in his misogyny, to Charles Manson. Mailer, who was drunk, called Vidal "an intellectual cow," which made no sense, and "a liar and a hypocrite" (not very clever), and finally, "an idiot." Still flustered, Mailer resorted to head-butting Vidal, who responded by saying, "Words fail Norman Mailer again." After that performance, Mailer vowed never to drink again before appearing on TV.

More recently, Buzz Bissinger, a respected writer, humiliated himself by screaming obscenities at Will Leitch, then-editor of this website, on Bob Costas's HBO sports show, all because Buzzy (now that's a moniker that begs for insults) took umbrage at the obscene language of some of Deadspin's bloggers. (Which is what passes for clever repartee for some on the internet these days. Alas, it seems the age of true wit has so passed by the internet generation that I believe when they read this, scratching their heads, they'll wonder who this Mailer guy was. Did he write some shit, or what? Anyway, back to Buzzy.) So Buzzy, who obviously has no grasp of irony, raged obscenely at Deadspin's bloggers until he looked more the fool than they did.

In Mailer's case, it was drink that led him down that dark alley of stupidity; in Buzzy's, it was an excess of testosterone, which may explain why our most literate insulters are women. Dorothy Parker once questioned the veracity of a rival by saying of her, "'Hello,' she lied." Mary McCarthy, who had a running feud with Lillian Hellman which resulted in a libel suit, once accused Hellman—again, on TV—of never having written an honest word, "including 'the' and 'and.'"

All of the previous insults were spontaneous utterances from glib people used to living out their lives and quarrels in the public eye. But what about the rest of us, the private schlubs, who seethe at home over an adversary's slight? ("Ancient, bony, hairless ass ...") Well, for us, there's still the written insult we can labor over—"The smoke of rewrite," Dorothy Parker called it—and then fire it off to, say, the Polski's blog for our satisfaction.


After Raab and I swapped our initial insults, the Polski's next post began with a warning: "I can only warn you once here … the following has lots of swearing. If you are offended by such things … SKIP THIS. Hide the kids." Then he posted Raab's rant, followed by mine, with samples of our more colorful prose, and a request for his viewers to vote for their favorite curser.

Scott Raab endorsing rage in Esquire:

FUCK YOU! That's right, fuck you. I've got your anger-management technique right here, dangling. Check it out — and while you're down there, kiss my crack … I'm sorry, did I say that out loud? Tough shit, dickweed. I do a lot of screaming, mostly profane. First off — I live and drive in north Jersey. Number two, my wife's a woman. Three, my idiot dog barks if a squirrel farts. Plus—I gotta tell ya—rage makes me feel so alive.

Pat Jordan on Jose Canseco in "Chasing Jose" for Deadspin:

At first, Jessica loved being Jose's "road beef" and then his "import" because he spent a lot of time buying her clothes she couldn't afford on her Hooters salary. Then they set up housekeeping at Jose's Coral Gables mansion with its rock waterfall pool and its cougars and giant Iguanas roaming the grounds and, sadly, Jessica discovering that living life with Jose was "a total fucking bore." Her daily calendar of activities reads something like this: sleep, wake, fuck, eat, lay by the pool, find Iguana, eat, fuck, shop, watch TV, fuck, sleep (for Jose anyway), and masturbate, all, of course, without Jose ever speaking. This last activity on Jessica's to-do list, she was forced to resort to because Jose's sexual performance left a lot to be desired, at least for Jessica. The way it worked was, Jose had sex with Jessica in front of a mirror until he had an orgasm, then spilled off her and went to sleep. While her big Lug snoozed, Jessica slipped out of bed and repaired to the bathroom where she made love to herself. Jessica claimed she didn't have an orgasm with Jose during their first two years of sex. She wrote, "If he noticed, he didn't care." So she began faking orgasms, "but I can't honestly say he noticed that either."

Almost immediately, Posnanski's blog was swamped with his viewers weighing in on The Great Curse Off between Scottie and "the salty old bastard," who assumed a slight lead and a leader's confidence. I emailed the Polski with a rejoinder to Mr. Raab's initial rant, which read, "Dear Scottie. You made a big mistake, huge, HUGE, as Julia Roberts would say, in trying to mix it up with Patty. You're in the big leagues now, son, and you're ill-equipped. Stop spluttering invective and try to write something clever. Even I'm rooting for you now, dear boy."

Scottie picked up the gauntlet and replied, "As for Jordan, I'm a fan. Pat Jordan can write and Pat Jordan can swear—and he also gets full credit for the seven decades he has spent milking his stunted minor-league career. The pride he takes in having learned to swear before, during, and after showering with other men is well-earned, and I have no doubt that, despite the homoerotic yearning at the heart of his oeuvre, his own sphincter, like the rest of his muscles, is still as supple as his prose."

Hmmm. Not bad. I replied: "Oh, Scottie, you're just jealous because you weren't in the shower with me. You've always resented the fact that I was more sensitive than you, bitch. PS: Much better, Scottie. But you're still only playing in the Eastern league now. AA. All that homoerotic stuff. Really! That's like me calling you a cocksucker, and saying you'd probably be pleased. Gracious, I would never say such a thing. But you are on the right track. You just need more seasoning … well, a lot less seasoning. Throwing heat, blindfolded, isn't always the answer, my boy. And I should know. But let's not get into that failure of mine that I have mined these last 50 years as you so rightly deduced. Back to the point. You. With a little coaching, from me, of course, take a deep breath, calm down, raise your right arm, or is it your left—you might yet learn to throw verbal strikes. Then, before you know it, AAA. Then after two or three more years of seasoning in AAA, or rather, un-seasoning, the Bigs. Tra-la! Only for a cup of coffee, of course, for the first two years, and then finally, maybe a nice career, long reliever for the Miami Marlins, then maybe a spot starter with the Marlins when someone is hurt, hanging on until you get a pension. A nice future, no? In the meantime, I will be waiting for you. But really, I can't wait forever."

By now almost 250 of Posnanski's fans had weighed in, giving me a clear 60-40 advantage, although I also have to admit that I was starting to feel a little trepidation. Not because of Scottie's vituperation—I'd heard worse from fans in ballparks where I'd pitched in my youth. ("Take the fucking piece of shit out out!") No, it wasn't Scottie who made me tremble; it was myself. How far would I go? Sadly, I knew the answer. All the fucking way until I was the last man standing. I would bury that little prick with one last email, which as far as he should be concerned, would be a mercy killing. I emailed the Polski:

"Polski, I trust the controversy between myself and this Mr. Raab has been settled to your readers' satisfaction. I will not deign to lower myself further by commenting more on Mr. Raab's use of profanity (in his diatribe against me), in comparison to my own more nuanced use of profanity, other than to say that I heard through the grapevine that the editor of Mr. Raab's once-esteemed publication, Esquire, one Mr. David Granger, is in the habit of referring to his writers as 'my bitches.' No wonder that Mr. Raab, when not quaking with fear in Mr. Granger's presence, must resort to profanity away from the office to blow off (pun intended) frustrations he can't release in Mr. Granger's presence. I have no such inhibitions, however, which is why, I'm sure, this Mr. Granger doesn't want ME to write for his once esteemed magazine. (The New York Times recently described Esquire as Playboy without the naked women and The New Yorker without the writers.) If he did, and he referred to me as one of 'my bitches,' I'd tear his fucking bald head off his sloped shoulders."

My second bitch remark seemed to have struck a nerve with Scottie. He would not go gently into that good night. I know how Obambi must have felt during the 2008 primary with Hilldebeast coming at him, blood dripping from her fangs, Obambi raising that pointed wooden stake, then bringing it down with both hands, sinking it deep into Hilldebeast's breast, but alas, drawing not even a drop of blood, Hilldebeast still coming at him with her slashing claws. Scottie fired back at me, something about, "seeing Pat Jordan piss in his Depends as he whines over lowering himself while striking yet another feckless macho pose. But Pat's right about this much: No editor alive would ever call Jordan a bitch: Most of those who tried to work with him found that 'asshole' was more precise."

Now, even Posnanski was beginning to get a little worried. There was blood on his website and more to flow. He wrote: "You know, a wise person would—at this point—put an end to this because, well, I believe we passed 'nasty' three bus stops ago. But … I kind of want to see how this turns out."

The Polski's fans, however were not so nonplussed. They seemed to be enjoying all the blood. One wrote: "LOL. Loving it."

My first instinct was to admit that Scottie was more than a worthy adversary. However, it was my second instinct, that terrible, vengeful, merciless part of myself, that I have tried to keep buried all these years, which surfaced. I wrote back:

"Yo, Rabinsky! Is it Raab as in 'rape,' or Raab as in 'broccoli'? Whichever. Tell me, Johnny-one-note, am I befuddling you with all my pitches? Well, I'll make it easy for you this time, bro. Here's a high, hard one. Has it dawned on you yet? You fucked with the wrong Guinea, boy. Finis." But I wasn't finished. I just couldn't stop myself, a fatal flaw, so I had to amend a PS: "Oh, well, I am deigning to lower myself, AGAIN, by responding to your fulminations. But what fun! At least for me it is."

Shortly after that email, the Polski emailed me back. He wrote: "Patty, here's the concession email I got from Scottie."

"Joe, I've bowed to the will of the vox populi and conceded the contest and I'm grateful to you for all the fun—and to Pat for bothering to get lit up. I count it a privilege and a thrill, and I hope you tell him so. Scott. It was, as expected, a blow out."

I was touched. The tenderness. The young warrior hugging the old warrior after battle. Maximus hugging Marcus Aurelius. I wiped a tear from my eye and wrote back to the Polack. "Yo, Polski, tell Scottie that was a lovely concession speech and I'm looking forward to taking a shower with him. I will supply the soap. If I drop it, he picks it up. Patty."


Pat Jordan has been a freelance writer for over 40 years. He is the author of A False Spring, and his work has been anthologized in The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan. Visit him at PatJordanStories.com. He has previously written for Deadspin about Jose Canseco, Spring Break in Daytona, and Bo Belinsky. Art by Jim Cooke.