Flyting: A ritual exchange of insults. According to a Wikipedia entry:
The root is the Old English word flītan meaning quarrel (from Old Norse word flyta meaning provocation). Examples of flyting are found throughout Norse, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature involving both historical and mythological figures. The exchanges would become extremely provocative, often involving accusations of cowardice or sexual perversion.
There was a flurry of flyting after the real-estate heir and presidential aspirant Donald J. Trump posted a blustery tweet on Friday, the morning after the UK’s historic (and potentially calamitous) vote to leave the European Union, aka “Brexit”:
Just arrived in Scotland. Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back. No games!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2016
In point of fact, while UK voters overall chose the “Leave” option, a resounding majority of Scots voters – 62 percent – opted to “Remain.” And many UK residents, Scots and Brits alike, were quick to set the record straight, tweet-showering Trump with florid epithets.
@realDonaldTrump we voted remain you polyester cockwomble— neil fleming (@ThatNeilFleming) June 25, 2016
@realDonaldTrump We voted to stay in the EU, you utter cockwomble. Go take a swim in the Firth of Clyde.— Jennifer Hainey (@Gingernutjen) June 24, 2016
Yes, “cockwomble” is authentic British slang. It means “a person possessing qualities of striking idiocy.”
Scotland voted to stay & plan on a second referendum, you tiny fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret wearing shitgibbon. https://t.co/iKyEIxf8ej— Hamfisted Bun Vendor (@MetalOllie) June 24, 2016
Hardly the first time tiny/small/short has been used in connection with Trump’s digits: “short-fingered vulgarian” goes back to the late 1980s, when it appeared with relentless regularity in the pages of the satirical magazine Spy. See also my Trump-related post from March of this year.
@realDonaldTrump we never got our country back, we wanted to remain, bolt ya hamster heedit bampot, away and boil yer napper— Rosco (@TheCyberwolf85) June 24, 2016
(Translation, via Quartz: “Go away you hamster-headed person of low intelligence and hooliganistic tendencies, go boil your head.”)
@realDonaldTrump Scotland voted overwhelmingly to STAY in the EU you weaselheaded fucknugget— Mac (@Mark_Andrew_M) June 24, 2016
Scotland hates both Brexit and you, you mangled apricot hellbeast @realDonaldTrump— Nina B (@queenbernstein) June 24, 2016
And much, much more. Indeed, Trump has over the course of his campaign inspired so many inventive epithets that a linguist who goes by the Internet name Babbel Cause has compiled a corpus, now comprising 169 insults directed at Trump, from “2 toned zebra headed slime coated pimple farming paramecium brain munching on your own mucus suffering from POTUS envy” to “wrinkled orange in a wig.”
I was made aware of flyting as the general term for such competitive insult-hurling from a comment on a Language Log post about the recent Trump unpleasantness. Dan Lufkin wrote:
There is an old Scots tradition called “flyting.” David Crystal has a squib on the topic in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. Here’s a sample: Rank beggar, ostir. dregar, foule fleggar in the flet. Crystal says, “The exact meaning of some of the words is uncertain, but there is no doubting their malicious intent!”
Rodger C picked up the baton in a subsequent comment:
My favorite bit in the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy is of linguistic interest, viz., where the Anglo-Scot Dunbar says he can fart English better than the bilingual Kennedy can speak it:
I tak on me, ane pair of Lowthiane hippis
Can fairer Inglis mak, and mair parfyte,
Than thow can blabbar with thy Carrik lippis.
According to the OED, the earliest references for to flyte = “to contend with words” are from the Venerable Bede, circa 900 CE, and Beowulf, around 916 CE.
That’s not to imply that Scots or Brits have a monopoly on acid-dipped witticisms. Here’s Houston resident David Huang’s comment in response to a Texas Tribune story, dated June 25, that quotes Trump as saying that if he becomes president Texas won’t secede from the United States “because Texas loves me”:
The African-American tradition of “the dozens” (sometimes known as the dirty dozens) bears a strong kinship with flyting, although it is of course more recent. Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang documents “dirty dozens” from the early 1900s, and defines it as “a very elaborate verbal rhyming game traditionally played by black boys, in which the participants insult each other’s relatives – in twelve censures [thus dozens] – especially their mothers.” The custom was perpetuated in blues lyrics and in countless “Yo Momma” jokes. A white blues scholar, Elijah Wald, wrote a 2012 book about the ritual, The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama.