Bookworms, by and large, are a non-aggressive breed. Externally, anyway. If you’re like me, the perfect retort only occurs to you hours after any given confrontation, as you lie awake in bed. And yet we avid readers have a vast store of bruising rhetoric at our fingertips! The very books we cherish are a goldmine of barbs, digs, and slams born from some of history's brightest (and most vindictive) minds. Don’t let all this material go to waste — there’s a gibe for almost any circumstance imaginable. For instance…
When insulting someone’s intelligence
“I misjudged you ... You’re
not a moron. You’re only a case of arrested development.”
—Harvey Stone in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. Just make sure the object of your derision doesn’t actually suffer from any learning disabilities. Then you’re the jerk.
“You blithering idiot! You
—Agatha Trunchbull in Matilda by Roald Dahl. Use sparingly. Highly potent.
“All morons hate it when you
call them a moron.”
—Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. So you’ve questioned someone’s intelligence, and now they’re irate. What better way to drive your argument home?
“You are the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.”
—Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Short, sweet, and to the point.
“I am not interested in
emotional fuckwittage. Goodbye.”
—Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. A great way to keep the emotionally distant … distant.
“And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.”
—Sally Nicholas in The Adventures of Sally by P.G. Wodehouse. Kill two birds with one stone: let him know he’s not up to par romantically or intellectually.
“He was a bad painter and a
vicious gossip, with a vocabulary composed almost entirely of obscenities,
gutteral verbs, and the word ‘postmodernist.’”
—Richard Papen in The Secrety History by Donna Tartt. A harpoon through the heart of the faux-intellectual.
“The man is as useless as
nipples on a breastplate.”
—Cersei Lannister in A Feast For Crows by George R.R. Martin. This is how they say “you ain’t all that and a bag of chips” in the Seven Kingdoms.
“A prig is a fellow who is
always making you a present of his opinions.”
—George Eliot, via Middlemarch. An elegant, yet biting, refusal of said present.
When critiquing an appearance
“I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result.”
—Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Perfect for someone who’s got about as much sense of style as that of punctuality.
“The most common error made in matters of appearance is the belief that one should disdain the superficial and let the true beauty of one’s soul shine through. If there are places on your body where this is a possibility, you are not attractive — you are leaking.”
—Fran Lebowitz in Metropolitan Life. An excellent way to say, “yes, you do actually have to wash your hair once in a while.”
“If you will forgive me for being personal — I do not like your face.”
—Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie. A rhetorical hollow-point bullet: fires smooth, explodes on impact.
When disparaging another’s
“Any woman who counts on her
face is a fool.”
—Kiki Belsey in On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Got pretty friends? This is the perfect rationale for your green-eyed envy.
“Come, my friend, and
remember the rich have butlers and no friends, and we have friends and no
—Ezra Pound in The Garrett. A more poetic way of saying “money can’t buy you friends.”
“The more money an American
accumulates, the less interesting he becomes.”
—Gore Vidal in An Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays. In other words, those who pay the piper have poor taste in music.
“Mrs. Joe was a very clean
housekeeper, but had an exquisite art of making her cleanliness more
uncomfortable and unacceptable than dirt itself.”
—Pip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. A gentler, more Victorian way of pointing out unbearable anal retentiveness.
“If you’re looking for
sympathy, you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.”
—David Sedaris, via Barrel Fever. Sedaris-ese for “cry me a river”; best used as a sharp remedy for self-pity.
“Don’t try to deconstruct
it, Carol — it’s a phenomenon too abstract for your thought process — it’s
—Phyllis Riggs in Central Park West by Woody Allen. The expert glove slap for the comedically challenged.
“In my mind, Martha, you are
buried in cement right up to your neck. No … Right up to your nose … That’s
—George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee. Perfect for hitting the mute button on the constant raconteur.
“My dear, I don’t give a
—Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Particularly effective in silencing incessant bellyachers.
“It should take you about
four seconds to get from here to the door. I’ll give you two.”
—Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. Shut it down and shut the door.
“Come and get one in the
yarbles, if you have any yarbles, you eunuch jelly thou.”
—Alex in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I mean, really, any excuse to say “eunuch jelly thou,” am I right?
“Eat my shit.”
—Minny Jackson in The Help by Kathryn Stockett. A refreshingly frank alternative to Nadsat.
“You know who does have a funny bone in her body? Your mom every night
for a dollar.”
—Tina Fey in Bossypants. When all else fails, hit ‘em with a timeless “your mom” jab.