A Brief History of Insults: How Different Cultures Use Spoken and Written Verse to Mock and Mediate

By David NaarLast Updated May 5, 2021 11:25:26 AM ET
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If you're a fan of hip-hop, or even if you just saw 8 Mile, then you're probably familiar with the concept of rap battles. Diss tracks, rap battle competitions and sometimes even slam poetry display the captivating ways people have perfected the art of slinging intricate insults or boasting to a beat.

But, interestingly, these traditions are hardly unique to modern times. As it turns out, a wide variety of cultural groups have developed and used their own uniquely creative methods of trading insults through verse for centuries — and to serve a multitude of purposes. Join us for a journey around the world as we explore the ways different countries mastered pejorative poetry before it was cool.

The Norse Loved to Pick a Flyte

A trek through history reveals that some Vikings had wits as sharp as their swords. Between the fifth and 16th centuries, verbal exchanges called "flyting" were all the rage in Europe. This activity was popular not only in Norse but also in Celtic, English and Scottish traditions.

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Photo Courtesy: Lorenz Frølich./Wikipedia

Similar to modern-day rap battles, flyting involved exchanging insults, many of which accused one's rival flyter of cowardice or sexual perversions. These insults were exchanged in a stylized way, such as through verse or rhyme, and flytes were often hosted in public locations for the amusement of onlookers or in castles as entertainment for royals. However, flyting served other — and perhaps somewhat more practical — purposes as well. Participants hurled fierce invectives at each other sometimes as a way to resolve disputes or to solidify friendships, as it was easier to "get away with" making increasingly lewd commentary to someone who knew a flyter didn’t really intend what they were saying to offend, but to impress.

The activity was so widespread that it became eternized by way of Norse legends that depict the gods engaging in the occasional flyte. One such legend, called Lokasenna, features Loki — a master of mischief, tricks and schemes — throwing down in a verbal sparring match with a variety of different gods during a feast. ("Lokasenna" itself translates to "Loki’s verbal duel.") In another poem, "Hárbarðsljóð," a ferryman named Harbard, who may have actually been the god Odin in disguise, engages in an epic flyting bout with Thor.

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Flyting may be ancient, but it hasn’t disappeared from popular culture. If you want to get a taste of what one of these ritualized verbal sparring matches may have been like, or even want to try your own hand at it, look no further than the video game Assassin's Creed Valhalla. Flyting is worked in as a minigame you can participate in by selecting your own insults to direct at an opponent.

Inuits Solved Problems Through Song

Weather around the world isn’t as temperate as it might’ve been in medieval England, and this may have something to do with why Inuit people developed a much more reasonable means of conflict resolution than standing around in the road spitting hundreds and hundreds of lines of insults at passersby. Who wants to host an hours-long outdoor altercation in a frigid Arctic climate? Inuit groups realized a song can get the message across just as effectively — and even more quickly — and the tradition of the taunting song was born.

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In Uqalurait: An Oral History of Nunavut, John Bennett and Susan Rowley detail the basic structure of these verbal duels set to a tune: "If a conflict arose between two men, they could try to settle it with a song duel. They used two weapons: wit and satire. Each composed a song about his opponent that would be performed at a community feast. The composer of the cleverest song, the one the audience enjoyed the most, won the duel."

If mocking your opponent through song in front of the entire town doesn't air your grievances or shame them into submission, then what will? By keeping things verbal, Inuit people devised a clever way to resolve community conflicts and maintain order without the need for physical fighting.

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Japanese Haikai Was Collaboratively Hilarious

Not to be mistaken for haiku poetry, haikai (sometimes called "haikai no renga") is a form of Japanese renga poetry — a form that involves two or more people supplying "alternating sections of a poem" — that first appeared around the 16th century. "Haikai" means something along the lines of "funny," "unorthodox," "vulgar" or a combination of all three.

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Renga is a form of collective verse poetry in which one poet says one or a few lines, the next poet devises a line (or several) as a response and so on — you can see the similarity to flyting. Eventually, renga evolved into a respected art form in the hands of skilled poets like the famed Matsuo Basho, but not before haikai no renga was used to produce a little hilarity in the early days.

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Haikai no renga was all about vulgarity and had no intention of upholding social graces. The verses that flowed forth during the average haikai experience tended to embrace crude humor, as one poet set up a situation and the next would build on it in the most random or shocking way they could think of. Renga poets also often presented each other with initial lines that sounded beautiful and artistic, and the responders were tasked with coming up with crass responses to create scandalous disparity.

Unlike today’s rap battles, haikai no renga seems to have been more of a team sport and wasn't necessarily engaged in by rivals. That said, it's possible a little roasting worked its way in on occasion.

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Arabic Poetry Poked Fun at Opponents

Arabic culture is notably impressive and prolific when it comes to poetry, and, throughout history, a variety of different poetic styles have flourished in the region. Among them was a form of poetic satire known as "hija." Hija was just the ticket when it came to using wit to mock one's enemies or spread nasty rumors about the shortcomings of a rival group.

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Hija is among the oldest recorded ancestors of the modern-day rap battle and was even employed by the famous eighth-century Arabic poet Abu Nuwas. Hija pulled no punches when it came to insulting an enemy, as can be seen in a verse by another early poet, Al-Mutanabbi, who was born in 915. After visiting Abu al-Misk Kafur, the de facto ruler of Egypt at the time, Al-Mutanabbi remarked, "Till I met this eunuch, I always assumed that the head was the seat of wisdom / but when I looked into his intelligence, I discovered that all his wisdom resided in his testicles."

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The Verse Is Mightier Than the Sword

Sparring through verse and verbiage has been used as a means of entertainment and conflict resolution for centuries. Why do such contests seem to appeal to us as humans on a universal level?

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It could be due to the fact that violence rarely proves little more than which participant is the better fighter physically. There's something about engaging in a battle of wits that seems even more challenging and satisfying for the winner and for onlookers.

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Rather than simply proving that they’re bigger or faster, a contestant who’s trading insults is able to demonstrate their mental acuity, no matter how much physical strength they might possess. While just about anyone could probably triumph in a physical altercation if given the right tools (or when participating against a smaller or weaker opponent), sparring through verse is another matter altogether.

In effect, it levels the playing field and allows opponents to face off against each other, regardless of their size or body type. It's also a great way to solve conflicts without actually resorting to violence. Participants might leave with bruised egos, but in the end, they’ll stick around to battle again on another day.

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