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Same to you, fella

Find your vituperative voice
By SHARON STEEL  |  March 5, 2008


Snarking back at self-righteous, passive-aggressive, thick-skulled dimwits isn’t as easy as you might think. But help has arrived for bibliophiles who aspire to be brassy-mouthed sophisticates. Now you, too, can defend yourself against know-it-alls, answer rude questions in an equally rude manner, and become the master of unconventional, obscure putdowns! A.C. Kemp — writer, linguist, and MIT lecturer — contends that the only way you can “crush annoying persons” is by being a model of anti-etiquette. All that is required is an open mind and a copy of her new book, The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion: Lady Snark’s Guide to Common Discourtesy.

For nearly a decade, Kemp taught a slang class for international students at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Her Web site,, ended up attracting more native speakers than foreign, so Kemp decided to focus her book on something that would please everybody — insults!

Kemp culled weird words and phrases (e.g., omphaloskepsis, crangle, pupaphobia, joot balls, feculent) from books and articles and quality time with the online OxfordEnglish Dictionary. Her Perfect Insult offers step-by-step instructions for doling out sophisticatedly and obscurely worded wounding slights to everyone from “Persons Who Erroneously Believe Themselves to Be Better Than You” to your own family. There are quizzes, suggested RSVPs for frat parties, and enlightening vocabulary lessons. It’s written from the “arch, ironic” perspective of her nom de plume, Lady Arabella Snark — a sharp-tongued, formerly incarcerated, twice-divorced alter-ego Kemp invented by researching erstwhile socialites. She’s Emily Post’s worst nightmare. But Kemp herself isn’t.

“I try to be Zen-like,” she says. “I am so unlike Lady Arabella. I remember at one point during the contract negotiations for the book, my agent said, ‘You know, this would be so much easier if you were like Arabella Snark.’ ”

In some ways, it would be so much easier if we all were. When one of my hilarious colleagues decided to test me by inquiring why I couldn’t “write more like a boy?” I sent the following response via e-mail. It’s paraphrased from The Perfect Insult’s suggestions on “Troglodytes in the Copy Room” and a section titled “Real Men Don’t Wear Gold Lamé”:

Dear Sir: It’s a shame you’re so intimidated by female scribes. But your remarks do not inspire terror in my soul, as I’ve observed your poltroonery on several occasions in the past! Also, you ain’t my road dog. Back off or meet my banger.

Best wishes,
Sharon Steel

A.C. Kemp will sign copies of The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion on March 13 at 7 pm at the Barnes & Noble at Boston University, 660 Beacon Street, Boston. Admission is free and open to the public. Call 617.267.8484 for more info, or visit

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