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What makes an insult insulting?
Does swearing demonstrate a poor command of English?
Is swearing on the increase?
What makes an insult insulting? by Philippa Law
Insults vary from language to language and culture to culture. The word for 'cuckold', for instance, is a terrible insult in Italian, but nonsense in Swedish.
Insults also change through time. An old insult in Icelandic is to call someone a 'cod', but few Icelanders would take it seriously now. Similarly, some young Icelandic people insult their friends by calling them 'jam' - but older people wouldn't know what on earth they were talking about.
Like other 'naughty' words, there are plenty of insults in European languages that involve tabooed parts of the body, sex, incest and dirt. But in addition to these, lots of insults use the names of animals - which are otherwise perfectly acceptable words.
The big question is: why might you call someone a 'pig' or a 'cow', but not a 'polar bear' or a 'kangaroo'? The short answer is: we don't know.
Lots of insults use the names of animals - which are otherwise perfectly acceptable words
Some linguists refer to the anthropologist Edmund Leach, who published his ideas on animal insults in 1964. He identified the animals used as usually being:
Animals which, in that culture, fall in-between the categories of edibility and non-edibility (e.g. animals that taste nice, but could also be pets)
Animals which, in that culture, are considered 'close' to humans in some way (i.e. are in between humans and animals).
Others have suggested that animal insults are muddled up with folklore and metaphor (e.g. sheep follow each other in herds; pigs are assumed to be dirty).