Definition of Invective
Invective is insulting or abusive language used to express blame or severe disapproval. Invective often occurs due to deeply seated ill will, and can also be called vituperation or vitriol. Invective can take the form of a single word or expression, or be an entire discourse aimed at offending or hurting someone else.
The word invective comes from the Latin invectiva, which meant “abusive or censorious language.” Thus, the definition of invective has stayed constant for many hundreds of years.
Common Examples of Invective
We are all familiar with invective, whether we are the victim or perpetrator of insults. There are many quotes from famous people which are invective examples, such as the following:
- Bessie Braddock, to Winston Churchill: “Sir, you are drunk.”
Churchill: “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”
- William Faulkner, speaking about Ernest Hemingway: “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”
- Jack E. Leonard: “There’s nothing wrong with you that reincarnation won’t cure.”
- Mark Twain: “I could never learn to like her, except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight.”
- James Reston, speaking about Richard Nixon: “He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears but by diligent hard work, he overcame them.”
There are also plenty of invective examples from movies:
- “I don’t hate you ‘cause your fat. You’re fat ‘cause I hate you!”—Mean Girls
- “You dirt-eating piece of slime, you scum-sucking pig, you son of a motherless goat!”—Three Amigos
- “I’ll explain and I’ll use small words so that you’ll be sure to understand, you warthog faced buffoon.”—The Princess Bride
- “You are a sad strange little man, and you have my pity.”—Toy Story
- “I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”—Monty Python and the Holy Grail
At times invective can also be used in humorous ways, like in the proliferation of “Yo Mama” jokes:
- Yo mama so dumb she thinks Fleetwood Mac is a new hamburger at McDonalds!
- Yo mama so fat she sat on an iPhone and turned it into an iPad.
- Yo mama so old her birth certificate is in Roman numerals.
Significance of Invective in Literature
Historically, invective was important in the polemical works of Roman poets and ancient Greek writers, and was itself a genre of writing used to attack public figures, especially politicians. Invective was also important in Renaissance England, during which it was called libel. Nowadays, invective is still common in the public sphere, especially when it’s used as political satire in order to point out corruption and the ills of society.
Authors sometimes use invective in their works of literature for humorous purposes, as two characters who are engaged in name-calling can be quite funny. However, in some cases invective can also be shocking and results in conflict and plot development. The use of invective from characters can also change the readers’ perception of that character, often making them seen either more human because they have strong emotions or, sometimes, more dislikable.
Examples of Invective in Literature
OEDIPUS: Sirrah, what mak’st thou here? Dost thou presume
To approach my doors, thou brazen-faced rogue,
My murderer and the filcher of my crown?
Come, answer this, didst thou detect in me
Some touch of cowardice or witlessness,
That made thee undertake this enterprise?
I seemed forsooth too simple to perceive
The serpent stealing on me in the dark,
Or else too weak to scotch it when I saw.
This thou art witless seeking to possess
Without a following or friends the crown,
A prize that followers and wealth must win.
(Oedipus the King by Sophocles)
Oedipus criticizes Creon, who he believes is conspiring against him to take the throne away from Oedipus. He uses invective examples, calling Creon a “brazen-faced rogue,” “murderer and filcher of my crown,” as well as “witless.” Oedipus’s turning on Creon ends up being part of Oedipus’s downfall.
PRINCE HENRY: I’ll be no longer guilty of this sin. This sanguine coward, this bed-presser, this horseback-breaker, this huge hill of flesh—
FALSTAFF: ’Sblood, you starveling, you elfskin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stockfish! O, for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase, you vile standing tuck—
(Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare used many examples of invective in his plays, and is particularly noted for his amazing creativity when it came to insults. In just this short exchange between Prince Henry and Falstaff, there are over a dozen insults traded back and forth.
“It does her good to get away.”
“Doesn’t her husband object?”
“Wilson? He thinks she goes to see her sister in New York. He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.”
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
This exchange from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby takes place between Tom Buchanan and the narrator Nick Carraway. Nick finds out that Tom has a mistress, who comes down to New York City to visit him. Nick questions whether the woman’s husband objects, but Tom has a choice example of invective for the husband, Wilson, saying “He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.”
“Why did you walk around with crab apples in your cheeks? Yossarian asked again. “That’s what I asked.”
“Because they’ve got a better shape than horse chestnuts,” Orr answered. “I just told you that.”
“Why,” swore Yossarian at him approvingly, “you evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a bitch, did you walk around with anything in your cheeks?”
“I didn’t,” Orr said, “walk around with anything in my cheeks. I walked around with crab apples in my cheeks. When I couldn’t get crab apples, I walked around with horse chestnuts. In my cheeks.”
(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)
There are plenty of absurd conversations and occurrences in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and the dialogue about crab apples is one of the most famous. The protagonist Yossarian is trying to make some sense out of Orr’s tautology about keeping crab apples in his cheeks, but Orr refuses to make sense. In his frustration, Yossarian unleashes a torrent of invective, calling Orr an “evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a bitch.”
Mr. Moony presents his compliments to Professor Snape, and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.
Mr. Prongs agrees with Mr. Moony, and would like to add that Professor Snape is an ugly git.
Mr. Padfoot would like to register his astonishment that an idiot like that ever became a professor.
Mr. Wormtail bids Professor Snape good day, and advises him to wash his hair, the slimeball.
(Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling)
J. K. Rowling employs numerous invective examples in her Harry Potter series, specializing in sarcasm and barbs traded between warring camps. In this example, the four characters of Moony, Prongs, Padfoot, and Wormtail (all epithet examples standing in for their real names) criticize the character of Professor Snape harshly. They attack his appearance and aptitude for the role of professor.
Test Your Knowledge of Invective
1. Which of the following is the best invective definition?
A. Harsh language meant to insult.
B. A reversal of the normal order of words, especially for the purpose of meter.
C. An insinuating remark that implies something derogatory about another person or institution.
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2. Which of the following quotes from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It does NOT contain an example of invective?
ROSALIND:—But, mistress, know yourself. Down on your knees
And thank heaven, fasting, for a good man’s love,
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can; you are not for all markets.
JAQUES: God be wi’ you. Let’s meet as little as we can.
ORLANDO: I desire that we be better strangers.
JAQUES: I pray you mar no more trees with writing love songs in their barks.
ORLANDO: I pray you mar no more of my verses with reading them ill- favoredly.
SILVIUS: Sweet Phoebe, do not scorn me. Do not, Phoebe.
PHOEBE: I would not be thy executioner.
I fly thee, for I would not injure thee.
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3. Choose the invective example from these Ernest Hemingway quotes:
“Maybe…you’ll fall in love with me all over again.”
“Hell,” I said, “I love you enough now. What do you want to do? Ruin me?”
“Yes. I want to ruin you.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s what I want too.”
“I misjudged you… You’re not a moron. You’re only a case of arrested development.”
“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
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