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A woman recently rubbed an eclair in the face of Nick Brown — the British minister of agriculture — in protest against policies that many think will bankrupt farmers. She was reported afterwards in one newspaper as saying that she regretted her action “in the sense that I have insulted Mr Brown”.

This is an odd sense of the word for most people today, since it’s more usual to insult people in words rather than by applying cream confections, especially such an upper-class one as an eclair, that cake Chambers Dictionary so famously defined as “long in shape but short in duration”.

But — if she actually said it — she was using the word in one sense of the original Latin. Insultare literally meant to leap at somebody, to assail or assault them. It was entirely physical, with no words implied, except perhaps a prefatory scream. Taking it back a stage, it came from saltire, to jump, which is the origin of two words I’ve already used in a circular way to define the Latin: assail and assault. (Among others it also gave us desultory, salacious and salient.) Even today, doctors still talk about a disease insulting the body when they mean it is causing harm or hurt, a direct reference to this Latin original.

But the Romans could also use the word in a figurative sense, to refer to a verbal assault, a tongue-lashing. We have just the same idea in our modern phrase to jump on somebody.

Like so much of our vocabulary, it journeyed to us through French, in which insulter meant to crow over a defeated enemy, to triumph over someone in an arrogant way. It arrived in English at the end of the sixteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary says with its usual comprehensiveness that it then meant “to manifest arrogant or scornful delight by speech or behaviour; to exult proudly or contemptuously; to boast, brag, vaunt, glory, triumph, especially in an insolent or scornful way”. Hardly a pleasant experience for the insultee.

The idea of boasting lasted quite a while; as late as 1666, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary about the defeat of the English fleet in a sea battle with the Dutch: “The Dutch do mightily insult of their victory, and they have great reason”. The saying adding insult to injury was more powerful when it appeared in the following century than it is now, as speakers still had an image of someone causing physical hurt and then staying around to gloat about it.

But by Pepys’s day, insult had largely moved to our modern meaning, first cousin to arrogant boasting but with the emphasis on the alleged failings of the recipient rather than the supposed superiority of the speaker.

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Page created 19 Feb 2000