Inside the Linguistic Anatomy of the Perfect Trump Insult

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Donald Trump may hate his new job and be surprised to find he’s not a dictator, but he is delivering on one campaign promise: innovation. At least in swearing.

The embattled new president is something of a muse for political obscenity. Consider the curious case of shit-gibbon, chronicled by linguist par excellence Ben Zimmer, in a new post at Strong Language, a sweary blog about swearing. The expletive exploded this week thanks to Pennsylvania state senator Daylin Leach. The public servant took umbrage when Trump joked of destroying the career of a Texas state senator who wanted to curb the police practice of asset forfeiture. “Hey @realDonaldTrump I oppose civil asset forfeiture too!” Leach tweeted. “Why don’t you try to destroy my career you fascist, loofa-faced, shit-gibbon!” The response to the tweet has been “beyond anything I could have imagined,” the lawmaker said Thursday.

Though “loofa-faced” is a gem, the operative word here is shit-gibbon. Zimmer, doing the Lord’s work, traces the insult’s trajectory. Where could Leach have alighted upon such a life-affirming insult? Why, naturally, the land of curses: Scotland. As you may have recalled from the innocent days of last summer, the Donald mistakenly thought that Scotland had voted to leave the European Union when in fact the mass majority of Scots voted to remain. “Just arrived in Scotland,” he tweeted. “Place is going wild over the vote. They took their country back, just like we will take America back.” And oh, the insults started pouring in. History was made when Twitter user MetalOllie called Trump a “tiny fingered, Cheeto-faced, ferret wearing shitgibbon.” (Note: MetalOllie is not Scottish, he says, thought he “WISHES” he were [caps his]).

Shit-gibbon has a certain ring in the ear, a metrical urgency that Migos would be proud of. It belongs to an entire class of ritual Scottish insults (that’s a real thing). Trump has a way of inspiring them, Zimmer notes; see also cockwomble, fucknugget, and jizztrumpet, to name but a few.

If the English major in you is tingling, that’s because these insults all share a similar rhythm. As linguist/blogger Taylor Jones notes, these follow the formula of single-syllable expletive insult + trochee, or a two-syllable word where the first sound is stressed, like puffin or womble. (Due to their simplicity, perhaps, trochees make for great kids’ content, like turtle, power, and mighty, morphin, or ranger.) In poetry, this tressed-stressed-unstressed construction is called an antibacchius, Zimmer reports.

What makes the antibacchius such a fit for the anti-Trump? Why does the Orange One summon “fucknugget” and its peers? My guess is that, to follow up on Jones’s analysis, it has to do with the combination of high and low culture that the foot accommodates. Some variations are downright childish (“fart person! poop human!”) while others are Shakespearean (“fart monger! piss weasel!”). It’s quite the match for a 70-year-old boy tyrant: “fart basket, shit whistle, turd helmet, cock bucket.” Feel free to invent your own, too.

Inside the Linguistic Anatomy of the Perfect Trump Insult