Sunday, November 09, 2008



On Nov, 22 at 6:30PM at the Somerville News Writers Festival, author A.C.Kemp will bring her bag of barbs to the stage. A. C. Kemp is a Lecturer in English Language Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her book "The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion" came out in March, 2008. I caught up to her recently for an interview. I am happy to report that she didn’t insult me.

Who, in your opinion, are the great insulters of the literati, be it authors or their characters? I can think of Dorothy Parker offhand...probably a lot of the guys and gals at the Roundtable for instance....

Most definitely Dorothy Parker! People get excited about Shakespearian insults, but they make you sound more pretentious than funny. In Hamlet, you’ve got lines like “it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters” about bad actors. Parker’s critique of Katherine Hepburn--“She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B”--has more punch. Plus, Parker shared many of Lady Snark’s favorite hobbies, like drinking and sleeping with married men.

Miss Snark, seen on the front cover of your book, your alter ego, seems like the perfect purveyor of your perspective. I wonder -- is "snark" a slang word? Is she a sort of a cold roast Brahmin, who is having a bad hair day?

Definitely not a Brahmin. Lady Snark was born in Gackle, North Dakota. She ran away from home as a teenager, worked as an exotic dancer, then moved to Paris to start the long, slow process of marrying up. As for snark, it’s not slang. It seems like a newish word, but it’s well over a hundred years old and was even used before Lewis Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark” poem. It comes from the even better word snork, meaning to grunt or snort. I think we should reintroduce that one, because I’d love to say, “stop being so snorky!”

How is the quality of insults in Somerville, Mass?

Average, but of course, I’m limited to the sample of people who have insulted me. There may be very creative insulters outside my circle of enemies.

Do you think McCain and Obama are good at this art of mudslinging?

Not really. “Palling around with terrorists” is pretty lame. I was kind of hoping for some snaps in the debates, like “Your mama is so dumb she flunked out of the Electoral College”—that sort of thing.

You are a scholar of slang and you founded the website This developed from a course you taught ESL students. Do you think when we are taught foreign languages in school; slang should be an important component as well? I remember only being taught in language labs stuff like: "In the evening we dress in our colorful native costumes and dance and sing with other idealistic youth." Real people don't talk that away...

I definitely think language students need more slang if they plan to spend any time in a country where the language is spoken. That’s why I started teaching the slang class. If you don’t know slang or even idioms, it’s very hard to fit in, and you can get yourself in trouble by not understanding that you’re being propositioned, threatened or invited to do something illegal. I had a straight student once who didn’t realize, because of language and culture differences, that he was being hit on by a guy until he was at the guy’s house.

You teach at MIT. Across the hall is Junot Diaz. He is our featured reader in The Somerville News Writers Festival that you are a part of. What slang verbiage might you use to congratulate him on his Pulitzer?

Actually, Junot is upstairs from me, but I’d just say “Congratulations!” I’m much more creative at being mean than nice.

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