Are insults more insulting if they’re graphic or geographic?

Location of Cornwall.

A few weeks ago I took a trip into the village. Even though it’s only a five minute walk from my front door to the farthest shop, I did as I always do and took the car.

I can almost hear what you’re thinking. Indolent, unhealthy, environmentally irresponsible. . . yes, I know all that, but I still prefer to do my walking along the cliff path or on the golf course.

Now Cornish folk are always affable, and more often than not downright friendly. I always highlight the difference between people from Cornwall, and those from the more-fashionable English counties around London, by saying that Cornish people will never give you the impression that they believe themselves to be more important than you. That is seldom the case around the English Home Counties, but, like every other one of the façades that we tend to assume whenever we open our front doors, it is only so deep.

She was a typical Cornish girl, with a face lined by hardship and time, and those wild salt-laden gales that constantly drive in from the North Atlantic, over the craggy North Cornwall coastline and across the moors. She had parked her car, on the no-parking lines, immediately outside the local grocery store, and was sitting with the engine switched off, presumably waiting on a friend.

A second car had parked behind her, and, as I approached from the opposite direction, the driver began to pull out and into the road.

Being familiar with the outwardly obliging nature of Cornish folk, I stopped my car and called the second driver on, before continuing on my way and parking some thirty yards farther along the street. I pulled in at the side of the road, got out of my car, and then walked back to the grocery store.

As I passed by, she climbed out and began studying the back of her vehicle.

“I can’t see any damage.” She said. I replied with an uncertain smile.


“Yes. You just hit the back of my car.” I carefully studied her, not sure if she was deranged or joking. She glared back. “You’re lucky, you didn’t dent it or damage the paintwork.”

I naturally protested my innocence.

“I can assure you that, whoever hit you, it wasn’t me. I was travelling in the opposite direction. I didn’t come within thirty yards of the back of your car.”

“Oh yes you did. . . I felt the bump.”

Not wishing to point fingers of suspicion, or apportion blame, I didn’t mention the other driver, who had just pulled out from behind her. Instead, I pointed to where my car was parked, thirty-odd yards farther along the street and facing in the opposite direction.

“Look. My car is facing the other way, and nowhere near yours. I don’t know who hit you, but it can’t possibly have been me.”

“Oh, yes it was. . . You Incomer!”

That was it. The ultimate insult in Cornwall.

Forget about casting dispersions on parentage, or four lettered words, or sexual innuendo, or graphic descriptions of inadequacy, or any other form of abuse. In this part of the world ‘Incomer’ is just about as insulting as it gets, and in Cornwall its use is widespread.

It means that I wasn’t born and bred in Cornwall. It means, the local tradespeople are very happy to take my money at the store, or fix the electricity or plumbing for a fee, or deliver the mail as part of their job, or smile and say ‘how are you’ as I pass on by, or superficially welcome me and my family whenever we stop in for a drink or a meal at the local pub, but in truth, even after seven years of friendly residence, I don’t fit in around here, and I never will.

And, you know the strangest thing. . . to my way of thinking that word was as shocking as any crass and vulgar commentary, or racist ethnic slur, could have been.

In fact, I would have much preferred she had used the more common and vulgar expletives.

The F and C words may be more graphic, and may, to the untrained ear, seem to be more shocking and outrageous, but, as insults go, telling your neighbour that he or she is only welcome for what they can pay you, or give to you, or do for you, or bring to your business, seems to me to be a thousand times worse.

I am told that the Japanese don’t ‘do’ swearwords. Apparently the Japanese language allows no place for them.

Now I always found the Japanese to be overwhelmingly pleasant and courteous, and I believe that we should always speak as we find. However, if you were to ask an American or British or Australian Second World War veteran, or even a billion Chinese, which is the cruellest race, they would undoubtedly point to the Japanese.

Perhaps the use of vulgar language, when remonstrating, is not simply for the purpose of insult, but more of a pressure-release valve. Maybe the Japanese have merely lacked the linguistic facility to release the pressure. Maybe my Daphne du Maurier heroine, with the unmarked and untouched car, was faced with a similar disadvantage in her available vocabulary. Who can tell, but that one seemingly innocuous incident contrived to permanently sully my opinion of Cornwall and the people who live there.

I will still smile and speak kindly, and give way to other drivers, and laugh and joke with the local tradesmen, and bid a cheery good morning to passers-by, but I no longer feel that Cornwall is my home.

And so, the next time someone calls you a f***ing this or that, just smile and be grateful.

It could have been a whole lot worse, and anyway, they’re probably just letting off steam.

Have a good one.


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