I was standing on a street corner last week waiting for the crosswalk light to change. All of a sudden, a guy stepped alongside and distinctly said, “You know something? You’ve got a face like a smashed jack-o-lantern.”
I winced, but let it go – and kept staring across the street at the crosswalk light. But the guy alongside wasn’t done. “Frankly, I’ve seen used Pampers that look nicer than your face.”
I could feel my left eye starting to twitch. “Your face reminds me of a flower,” he said next. “A cauliflower.”
That was too much. I whirled around at him. “What’s your problem, pal?” I sputtered. He turned toward me and said, “Oh, sorry man. I was talking to my brother.”
That’s when I noticed that the guy was talking on his cell phone.
There is something unique to humans when it comes to insults and snaps. I’ve never seen farm animals hurling vitriolic putdowns at one another – nor any comebacks, for that matter. Although it would be fun to imagine:
HORSE: “Hey, pig! Can’t wait to see you turned into pork sausage!”
PIG: “At least I’m tasty! All you’re good for is dog food and glue!”
For the vast majority of humans, we can usually only think of a truly clever riposte about a day after someone insults us. That’s why curse words and middle fingers were invented. They are place-setters for more witty retorts.
For example, when a driver cuts us off in traffic, we will generally curse or “flip the bird” – all the while wishing we could have thought of shouting out the window: “If your I.Q. was three points higher, you’d be a tree stump!”
But one of the nastiest ways to insult someone is to compare him or her to someone else. It reminds me of Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson. He was the presiding judge in the United States vs. Microsoft case back in 2001 and you may recall when he called then-Microsoft leader Bill Gates a “Napoleon.” He made the remark in an issue of The New Yorker, a magazine usually found well down the newsstand rack from Truckin’ and All About Beer.
Jackson even remarked that Gates ought to be required to write a book report about Napoleon. (Yep, he really said that.) But it was never clear about precisely which Napoleon he was comparing to Gates. The judge may have been thinking of the great Husky running back, Napoleon Kaufman. If so, it seems quite a stretch; Microsoft insiders insist that Gates seems comparatively slow-footed and was never seen wearing a helmet to work.Or perhaps the judge was thinking of a long-ago Hall of Fame second baseman named Napoleon Lajoie. But that too seems unlikely since the infield fly rule has little bearing on antitrust law.
So, more than likely, the judge was thinking that Gates should have written his book report on Napoleon Bonaparte, the undersized, over-achieving Corsican soldier with the bad haircut who conquered most of Europe back in the early 1800s.
But even that comparison is quite a reach. Unlike Gates, Napoleon started out life dirt-poor, didn’t wear glasses and didn’t attend Lakeside School. He also had a habit of keeping one hand stuffed into the upper lapel of his coat, greatly limiting his ability to use a mouse.
Jackson reminds me of Mrs. Kornfield, the woman who ran my high school’s hot lunch program. She loved to pepper her criticisms of student behavior with historical allusions. For example, when Danny Rutherford loaded up his lunch tray with seven hot dogs one day, she scolded his gluttony by telling him that he was “behaving like Charlemagne.” She was equating Danny’s greed for hot dogs to Charlemagne’s hunger for power. Ironically, it was only years later that Danny found out Charlemagne was known as “King of the Franks.”
Mrs. Kornfield told another kid, Johnny McCool, that he had a “Bronte complex.” He remained confused for years, never knowing if she meant Charlotte or Emily.
When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes call me “Prince Charles,” especially if I was slow in getting my household chores done. But I would usually ignore his rude remark as I headed out the door for a day of fox hunting and polo.
My younger brother Mike got the nickname of “Lurch,” a reference to the big, grunting, non-emotive butler from “The Addams Family.” To this day though, I rally to Mike’s defense.
He reminds me much more of “Thing.”
Meanwhile, Bill Gates certainly doesn’t need my advice on anything.
Nonetheless, if he ever runs into Judge Jackson again, he could drop him quickly with a withering switch-up: “Well, Jackson, you’re certainly no Judge Judy.”
That’d show him.