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Insults from Antiquity

If you feel insulted, cheer up. Contemporary insults lack the literal punch they used to have. The adage about sticks and stones breaking your bones but words never hurting you, while true, ignores older forms of insults, which, to employ another well-worn cliché, could quite literally add insult to injury.

Take the infamous inscribed sling-bullets of ancient Rome. Essentially, tiny, mean phrases or symbols meaning “cowers like a dog” and “OUCH!” were inscribed on lead slugs, which were then launched by putting the slug into a sling, whipping it three times about the head, and then flinging it into the enemy.

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In ancient Egypt, if a slave hassled a free person with some cheeky comment, the slave could be punished, or, in extreme cases, put to death. In a similar vein, the historical European tradition of dueling is the penalty phase of an insult, or the result of a challenge to someone’s honour, which really is just a much more refined way of describing an insult.

In today’s world, the greatest civilized penalty for insults generally involves lawyer’s fees. So rejoice! Social progress now allows people the freedom to insult each other without serious bodily harm, even if one’s bank account is reduced to a smoldering ruin.