Invective is abusive or insulting language. Invective comes from the Latin word invectus, which translates as "attack with words." It can be a word or phrase that is meant to insult or degrade. As an adjective, the word invective can mean anything that contains abusive language, such as a letter or spoken words.
At the most basic level, invective is a verbal attack that uses disparaging language. It involves berating or striking out at another person using venomous derogatory language and name-calling. It can be described as hurling insults. While invective is often used in everyday communication, it is also a literary device.
Invective can be used in multiple ways within sentences, including as a noun or an adjective.
Invective can be used as a noun. In this case, invective simply amounts to name-calling. It involves labeling a person, place, thing, concept, or idea with a derogatory or demeaning label.
- Calling a person a chicken when they are unwilling to jump off the top of a building.
- Referring to a physically disabled man as a bungling fool when he is not able to quickly get his subway token into the machine.
- Labeling someone you think took credit for your idea as a cheater.
- Saying that someone you believe may be dishonest is a liar.
- Calling a person who is overweight a tub of lard.
- Referring to a grumpy older woman who lives down the street from you as an old bat.
- Indicating that a businessman who you believe cheated you is a dirty rotten scoundrel.
Invective can also be used as an adjective. Using invective in this way involves adding venomous descriptive terms to enhance a noun.
- She is a sorry excuse for a teacher.
- I'm not going to eat at that disgusting salmonella infested restaurant.
- He's a low information voter.
- Your nasty, snot-nosed child needs to stay away from my daughter.
- You're nothing but a greedy, money-hungry scammer.
- Stop mooching off mom and dad, you lazy, good-for-nothing bum.
- What I bought from them was shoddy, poor quality crap.
When people use invective in real life or when characters infuse it into dialogue, they're usually driven by emotion. The rules of grammar and parts of speech aren't really what they're thinking about when using invective. When people speak in invective, they often use multiple parts of speech, as well as slang words and epithets. Invective often includes profanity and nonstandard language (such as "yo' momma" phrasing).
- That shack you call a house should be condemned.
- I wouldn't set foot in that bug-riddled roach motel.
- You must work really hard to be so poorly informed.
- It's a good thing you think so highly of yourself because no one else does!
- Why do you even bother to try to cook? It's like you're torturing the food and appliances along with the rest of us.
- How dare you, of all people, ask me for money? You pompous, overspending hack.
- I don't believe a word you say, you lying liar. You wouldn't know the truth if it smacked you in the face.
- You might put forward a pretty face to the world, but you're nothing but ugly inside.
- The magnitude of your utter stupidity and willful ignorance is astounding.
- You sorry no good, useless piece of s***.
- Stay out of my business, you nosy old hag!
- Look jack***, if I wanted advice from a moron, I'd find one with more sense than you!
The invective literary definition draws a distinction between two types of invective: high invective and low invective. There are many examples of both types of invective in well-known works of literature. High invective uses formal language in a creative yet still insulting way.
This rather poetic example of high invective can be found in Shakespeare's King Lear.
"A knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats; a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable, finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pander, and the son and heir to a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining if thou deni'st the least syllable of thy addition." (William Shakespeare, King Lear, II.2)
Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift includes a consummate example of high invective.
"I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth." (Jonathan Swift)
Low invective uses less formal wording than high invective. It often includes vivid, offensive insults.
This example of low invective can be found in Edward Lear's 1859 Letter to Lady Strachey.
"A vile beastly rottenheaded foolbegotten brazenthroated pernicious piggish screaming, tearing, roaring, perplexing, splitmecrackle crashmecriggle insane ass of a woman is practicing howling below-stairs with a brute of a singingmaster so horribly, that my head is nearly off." (Edward Lear, "Letter to Lady Strachey")
You can find an example of low invective In Edgar Allan Poe's The Philosophy of Furniture.
"In the internal decoration, if not in the external architecture of their residences, the English are supreme. The Italians have but little sentiment beyond marbles and colors. In France, meliora probant, deteriora sequuntur--the people are too much a race of gadabouts to maintain those household proprieties of which, indeed, they have a delicate appreciation, or, at least, the elements of a proper sense. The Chinese and most of the Eastern races have a warm but inappropriate fancy. The Scotch are poor decorists. The Dutch have, perhaps, an indeterminate idea that a curtain is not a cabbage. In Spain they are all curtains--a nation of hangmen. The Russians do not furnish. The Hottentots and Kickapoos are very well in their way. The Yankees alone are preposterous." (Edgar Allan Poe "The Philosophy of Furniture")
You can also find examples of invective in famous quotes.
- "His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork." - Mae West
- "He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends." - Oscar Wilde
- "I didn't attend the funeral but I sent a nice letter saying I approved." - Mark Twain
- "He has Van Gogh's ear for music." - Billy Wilder
- "I've had a perfectly lovely evening, but this wasn't it." - Groucho Marx
- “He [Richard Nixon] inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears but by diligent hard work, he overcame them.” - James Reston
- “He [Ernest Hemingway] has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” - William Faulkner
Really, any kind of insult is an example of invective. While calling people names or generally being mean and nasty isn't the best way to communicate, there are times that it makes sense to work invective into your writing. You may also want to explore other ways characters can use language to put down others. After all, some characters do tend to say disparaging things quite regularly. Expand your repertoire by exploring some examples of cockney insults.