HAS ANYONE SUGGESTED RECENTLY that your mother wears combat boots? You would like to respond in kind, but you really don't want to engage at that level? Have no fear. Help is at hand if you can procure a copy of Shakespeare's Insults: Educating Your Wit, a collection of 5,000 elegantly abusive riffs, all lifted from works of the Bard.
Of course, Shakespeare's zingers tend toward the archaic. "Endeavor thyself to sleep and leave thy vain bibble babble" somehow doesn't quite have the sting of a simple "Zip it!" But, "A fiend like thee might bear my soul to hell" does have a certain je ne sais quoi that "Outta my face!" lacks and would always be useful in playing the dozens with, say, Sir John Gielgud.
The book is, perhaps not surprisingly, the idea of a couple of academics, husband and wife Wayne Hill and Cynthia Öttchen. Americans who were pursuing graduate work—he in theology, she in the history and philosophy of architecture—at Britain's Cambridge University, they happened to see a student production of Twelfth Night in 1991.
"We came out of the play slinging some funny things, insulting one another," says Hill, 38, who is originally from San Leandro, Calif., and married Öttchen, 34, of Tama, Iowa, in 1987. Inspired, they set about mining Shakespeare for more barbs. (A favorite: "More of your conversation would infect my brain"—from Coriolanus.)
Starting with a self-published print run of 1,500 and working out of their rooms in Cambridge, the two went from bookshop to bookshop, finding willing buyers. To their surprise, Shakespeare's Insults became a British bestseller. Thanks to Will, Hill and Öttchen, who still live in Cambridge, estimate they have made nearly $1 million so far. Picked up by Random House, their book was released in the U.S. in 1995. Meanwhile their Wit Kits—refrigerator magnets with selected Shakespearean nouns, verbs and adjectives—are available in bookstores. If sufficiently piqued, you could arrange them into suitably arcane put-downs.
Or thou couldst get thee a life.
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