I. What is Invective?
Invective is the literary device in which one attacks or insults a person or thing through the use of abusive language and tone. Invective is often accompanied by negative emotion.
Invective can be divided into two types: high and low invective.
- High invective requires the use of formal and creative language.
- Low invective, on the other hand, makes use of rude and offensive images.
Both high and low invective share the same goal: to insult and offend.
II. Examples of Invective
For a few examples of invective, consider a bully who is harassing someone who is very nervous about talking to his crush.
Uses of invective may include:
- What, are you chicken?
- You’re afraid of your own shadow!
- You’re going to be alone forever with that bravery!
- She’s not interested in you anyway.
With everyday language and images, the above examples would be considered low invective. For examples of high invective, consider the following re-writes:
- You must have been a chicken in a previous life.
- With such gallant bravery, you are sure to be alone for the rest of your days.
- I do believe she never held interest in you and she never will, despite your efforts.
As can be seen, high invective utilizes flowery, more formal language than low invective.
III. The Importance of Using Invective
Invective was once used by Roman poets to attack public and political figures. To this day, insulting language is used in the same way, often by political comedians and satirists. Invective is an important literary device in that the insult can arouse negative emotion in the audience as well as the target of the insult.
IV. Examples of Invective in Literature
Invective has a wide range of uses in literature, from illustrating characters to reflecting their emotion to summoning that emotion in the reader. Invective may be found in speeches, prose, and poetry.
For a classic example of invective, consider this excerpt from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors:
He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind;
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind.
What a brilliantly worded and rhymed insult!
For a subtler and more contemporary example of invective in poetry, consider these excerpts from Raymond Carver’s poem “You Don’t Know What Love Is (an evening with Charles Bukowski)”:
Let me tell you something
I’ve met men in jail who had more style
than the people who hang around colleges
and go to poetry readings
there’s only one poet in this room tonight
only one poet in this town tonight
maybe only one real poet in this country tonight
and that’s me
I don’t see any poets
I’m not surprised
You have to have been in love to write poetry
and you don’t know what it is to be in love
that’s your trouble
Carver’s speaker, Bukowski, uses invective in order to criticize a room full of poets and to make the claim that one must feel deeply and live a hard life in order to write true poetry. In this poem, invective is used both to characterize the speaker and to summon a response of shock or anger in the reader.
V. Examples of Invective in Pop Culture
Invective may be found in all facets of pop culture, from rap songs to movie scenes.
One frequent use of invective in our culture is as simple as the “Yo Mama” joke:
Yo mama so old, she took her driver’s test on a dinosaur.
There are many more, but let’s stop with just one.
For another example of invective, consider the moderator’s response to Billy Madison’s idiotic response in Billy Madison:
Mr. Madison, what you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.
This is a clear example of high invective in its use of high language in order to give a low blow.
For a final example of invective, watch this scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a Frenchman provides the knights with an absurdly hilarious collection of insults:
You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person! I blow my nose at you, so-called “Arthur King”! You and all your silly English Knights!
I don’ wanna talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food-trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries!
VI. Related Terms
Whereas invective can result in a cursing fit of name-calling, meiosis prides itself in understatement. Meiosis is the literary term in which one uses a nickname in order to belittle someone or something.
Here are a few examples of meiosis versus invective:
Target of Insult:
He’s a psychiatrist.
He’s a shrink.
He wishes he could’ve been a surgeon, but he wasn’t good enough, so he just gave up and decided to be a little brain-picker.
In this example, meiosis is as simple as turning a psychiatrist into a “shrink,” as the phrase shrink belittles the medical doctor. Invective, on the other hand, is more complicated and in-depth in order to insult.
Consider the example of the environmentalist:
Target of Insult:
He’s an environmentalist.
He’s a treehugger.
He’s just a pasty, do-gooder, tree-hugging, recycling, boo-hooing environmental-what.
Once again, meiosis utilizes understatement, whereas invective utilizes overstatement.
VII. In Closing
Invective is a literary device used to insult a person or thing. Oftentimes, invective is paired with anger or frustration. Invective may be used to express strong negative emotion or to stir up emotion in the audience. Because invective is characteristically harsh, it is best avoided in formal situations.