There are many stereotypes regarding us Brits. If you believe them all, we’re a nation of royalty-loving, umbrella-carrying, fish-and-chip eaters who drink tea at 5 o’clock. I would reject all of those, but one which does have some truth in it concerns manners.
‘Manners maketh man’ William of Wykeham (1324 – 1404)
British people pride themselves on their politeness, and teach their children to queue at bus stops, and ‘mind their Ps and Qs’ (watch your manners/be careful how you behave). However, this can sometimes be a disadvantage, such as when we need to say something negative. We don’t like upsetting others, whereas Americans (for example) are much more direct, and would happily say that something “sucks” without worrying about causing offence. So we Brits have developed ways of criticising or insulting which don’t cause offense.
Here are my top 6 ways for you to politely insult or criticise in British-English.
- It’s not you, it’s me
Insult: I’m bored with you and can’t stand the sight of you any more. Get out of my life!
Insult British-style: Susan, it’s not you, it’s me.
This is often used to end a relationship, suggesting that the person finishing it has some kind of deep-seated inner problem which stops them from maintaining the relationship. In reality, it usually is “you” not “me”, but saying it British-style means less trouble for the person who is ending the relationship.
- With all due respect
Insult: You are useless. Get out of my sight immediately!
Insult British-style: With all due respect, you had best immediately start your weekend and start again next week.
Respect. It’s such a positive word, isn’t it? Telling someone you have respect for them gives the recipient of those words a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Yet, these words are almost always followed by a cutting remark which shows absolutely zero respect. Example, “with all due respect, that’s never going to work”. Start your critiques positively and see how well your criticism is taken.
- There’s some room for improvement
Insult: If your child doesn’t start to work harder in class soon, I will crush the little blighter.
Insult British-style: There is some room for improvement in your child’s performance in maths.
An honest remark; after all, nobody’s perfect, as they say. But watch out, as the ‘room’ referred to here usually means a lot as opposed to just a little bit. It’s a phrase often used in school reports.
Insult: How on earth did he miss? He is absolutely useless; my 90 year old granny could have scored that!
Insult British-style: That was a little disappointing. Ah well, back to the game plan.
We’ve seen and heard it many times. A footballer misses an open goal from five yards/metres, and the commentator comes out with this gem, “he’ll be disappointed with that”. A sentence with ‘disappointed’ is one of the politest ways of saying, ‘absolutely awful’. I can guarantee the football fans aren’t as polite in their commentary!
- A maverick
Insult: Stark-raving-bonkers. That woman couldn’t run a shop, let alone a country!
Insult British-style: She’s a maverick that one.
This is most often used to describe a politician. The dictionary says a maverick is someone who “thinks and behaves in an unusual way”. On the surface, that could mean a rebel, who doesn’t follow the rule book, but a “maverick Member of Parliament (MP)” is usually a lunatic who wants to turn the clock back 50 years, bring back the birch and restore capital punishment!
- Not bad
Insult: That phone company are as useful as a chocolate teapot!
Insult British-style: That company aren’t bad, but….
Not bad means good, right? Wrong. If your suggestion really was good, there are many adjectives the speaker could use: Wonderful! Amazing! Fabulous! If “not bad” really is the best response they can give, it really doesn’t say very much at all.
Where’s the best place to hear examples of this polite phrasing?
The House of Commons is a great example of the need to be polite with your insults. If an MP oversteps the etiquette mark, the Speaker asks him or her to withdraw the remark, and an alternative is needed. A master of this art is the veteran MP Dennis Skinner, who’s been in Parliament since 1970. Once he accused half of the members opposite of being “crooks”. Dennis was asked to rephrase his comment, which he did by saying “OK, half the members opposite aren’t crooks”. Pure genius!
To finish, an exception to the rule.
People in Yorkshire are famous for their straight talking, so you’ll hardly ever hear a Yorkshireman use any of the phrases above. Ex-England cricketer Geoffrey Boycott is famous for his straight talking, like when he called an Indian batsman “Rubbish” and was then proved right within seconds!
There you have it, your top six ways to politely insult. Which one is your favourite?