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Best literary insults: fantastic written down put-downs

How to offend someone, by the book.

Best literary insults: fantastic written down put-downs
Marc Chacksfield
28 August 2023

We all know the saying. If you can’t say anything nice then don’t say anything at all. It was drummed into many of us as kids. But although we’d like to say that we maintain this mantra, unfortunately we love nothing more than a particular cutting quip or insult.

Our excuse for such verbal volleys? If it’s good enough for literature then it’s good enough for us. In this list you'll find our top picks of the best literary insults, from the early days of Shakespeare to some of our modern favourites.

Have we missed off your most tantalising literary putdown? Make sure you add it below.

Best literary insults

Best literary insults

1. As You Like It, William Shakespeare

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“I desire that we be better strangers.”

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Best literary insults

2. Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut

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“If your brains were dynamite there wouldn’t be enough to blow your hat off.”

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Best literary insults

3. The Importance Of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde

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“I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result.”

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Best literary insults

4. The Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens

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“He would make a lovely corpse”

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Best literary insults

5. Murder On The Orient Express, Agatha Christie

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“If you will forgive me for being personal… I don’t like your face.”

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Best literary insults

6. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler

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"You talk too damn much and too damn much of it is about you."

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Best literary insults

7. The Lion And The Unicorn, George Orwell

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“He is simply a hole in the air.”

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Best literary insults

8. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

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“I misjudged you… You’re not a moron. You’re only a case of arrested development.”

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Best literary insults

9. The Dying Animal, Philip Roth

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"Stop worrying about growing old. And think about growing up."

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Best literary insults

10. The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

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"Well, Ben Rogers, if I was as ignorant as you I wouldn't let on."

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Best literary insults

11. A Scandal In Bohemia, Arthur Conan Doyle

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“You see, but you do not observe.”

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Best literary insults

12. A Happy Death, Albert Camus

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"I feel like getting married, or committing suicide, or subscribing to L'Illustration. Something desperate, you know.”

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Best literary insults

13. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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"He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animated abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarize it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely."

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Best literary insults

14. A Feast For Crows, George R.R. Martin

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“The man is as useless as nipples on a breastplate.”

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Best literary insults

15. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

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"He liked fishing and seemed to take pride in being able to like such a stupid occupation."

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Best literary insults

16. Breakfast At Tiffany’s, Truman Capote

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“It should take you about four seconds to walk from here to the door. I’ll give you two.”

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Best literary insults

17. The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger

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“I told him he didn’t even care if a girl kept all her kings in the back row or not, and the reason he didn’t care was because he was a goddam stupid moron. He hated it when you called him a moron. All morons hate it when you call them a moron.”

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Best literary insults

18. King Lear, William Shakespeare

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“Thou art a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mungril bitch.”

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Best literary insults

19. Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen

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“You are the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.”

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Best literary insults

20. Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

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"Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only assholes do that."

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Best literary insults

21. Macbeth, William Shakespeare

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"You should be women and yet your beards forbid me to interpret that you are so."

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Best literary insults

22. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Edward Albee

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“In my mind, Martha, you are buried in cement right up to your neck. No… right up to your nose… that’s much quieter.”

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Best literary insults

23. Another Country, James Baldwin

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"People don't have any mercy. They tear you limb from limb, in the name of love. Then, when you're dead, when they've killed you by what they made you go through, they say you didn't have any character. They weep big, bitter tears - not for you. For themselves, because they've lost their toy."

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Best literary insults

24. Gone With The Wind, Margaret Mitchell

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“My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

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Best literary insults

25. Skippy Dies, Paul Murray

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“As Jesus said to me once, Greg, what's your secret? And I said, Jesus--study your notes! Get to class! Shave that beard! You show up to your first day on the job dressed like a hippie, of course they're going to crucify you, I don't care whose son you are . . ."

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Best literary insults

26. Matilda, Roald Dahl

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“You blithering idiot! … You festering gumboil! You fleabitten fungus! … You bursting blister! You moth-eaten maggot!”

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Best literary insults

27. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

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“Thou woldest make me kisse thyn old breech, And swere it were a relyk of a saint, Though it were with thy fundement depeint!… I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond… Lat kutte hem of”

(“You’d have me kiss your old trousers and swear they were the relic of a saint, even though they’re stained with your s—… I wish I had your balls in my hand… I’d cut them off.

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Best literary insults

28. The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka

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"He was a tool of the boss, without brains or backbone.”

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Best literary insults

29. A Pair Of Blue Eyes, Thomas Hardy

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"You ride well, but you don't kiss nicely at all."

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Best literary insults

30. The Stand, Stephen King

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“I think you're a taker. You've always been one. It's like God left some part of you out when He built you inside of me.”

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Best literary insults

31. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, JK Rowling

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"She is nuttier than squirrel poo."

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Best literary insults

32. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand

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“Don’t fool yourself, my dear. You’re much worse than a bitch. You’re a saint. Which shows why saints are dangerous and undesirable.”

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Best literary insults

33. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

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“You bloody old towser-faced boot-faced totem-pole on a crap reservation.”

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Best literary insults

34. Loss Of Breath, Edgar Allan Poe

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"Thou wretch! - thou vixen! - thou shrew!" said I to my wife on the morning after our wedding, "thou witch! - thou hag! - thou whipper-snapper! - thou sink of iniquity - thou fiery-faced quintessence of all that is abominable! - thou - thou-"

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Best literary insults

35. The Picture Of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde

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"Without your art you are nothing. I would have made you famous, splendid, magnificent. The world would have worshipped you, an you would have borne my name. What are you now? A third-rate actress with a pretty face."

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Best literary insults

36. Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

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"Your hair wants cutting"

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Best literary insults

37. The Rules Of Attraction, Bret Easton Ellis

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“I only had sex with her because I'm in love with you.”

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Best literary insults

38. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald

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“She’s not leaving me. Certainly not for a common swindler who’d have to steal the ring he put on her finger.”

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Best literary insults

39. Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett

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“Critic!”

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Best literary insults

40. Kim, Rudyard Kipling

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“Thy aunts have never had a nose for seven generations!”

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Best literary insults

41. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

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“You teach me now how cruel you've been—cruel and false. Why did you despise me? Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they'll blight you—they'll damn you.”

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Best literary insults

42. The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy

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"Some day you’ll show up when I’m back where I belong in this world. When I have what I ought to have. My due. And when you do. My gamekeepers will drive you out and away for good. Out. Away. Out."

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Best literary insults

43. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess

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“Well, well, well, well. If it isn’t fat, stinking billygoat Billy-Boy in poison. How art thou, thy globby bottle of cheap, stinking chip-oil? Come and get one in the yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou.”

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Best literary insults

44. Ulysses, James Joyce

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“If you see kay

Tell him he may

See you in tea

Tell him from me.”

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Best literary insults

45. Platform, Michel Houellebecq

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"Rumour had it that he was homosexual; in reality, in recent years, he was simply a garden-variety alcoholic."

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Best literary insults

46. After Claude, Iris Owens

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"If looks could kill, you'd soon find out that yours couldn't."

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Best literary insults

47. The Collector, John Fowles

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"He's not human; he's an empty space disguised as a human.

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48. The Secret History, Donna Tartt

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"As if happened, I knew Gartrell. He was a bad painter and a vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities, guttural verbs, and the word 'postmodernist'."

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Best literary insults

49. Janet's Repentance (Taken From Scenes Of Clerical Life), George Eliot

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“A deistical prater, fit to sit in the chimney-corner of a pot-house, and make blasphemous comments on the one greasy newspaper fingered by beer-swilling tinkers.”

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Best literary insults

50. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding

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"You're a beast and a swine and a bloody, bloody thief!"

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Best literary insults

51. Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding

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"That is such crap. How dare you be so fraudulently flirtatious, cowardly and dysfunctional? I am not interested in emotional f***wittage. Goodbye."

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Best literary insults

52. Engleby, Sebastian Faulks

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"What a pair of frauds."

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Best literary insults

53. A Confederacy Of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

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“This liberal doxy must be impaled upon the member of a particularly large stallion!”

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Best literary insults

54. No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

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"You keep runnin’ that mouth and I'm goin’ to take you back there and screw you."

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Best literary insults

55. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck

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"I could get you strung up in a tree so easy it ain't even funny."

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