The Dark Side of Manners: Lady Snark's Guide to Common Discourtesy

© Rachel McPherson

You know how sometimes, someone says something that makes your face hot and your hands ball into fists of fury and your face go into perma-scowl only to realize you have let them get away with it?

We do! Oh, we do, we do, WE DO! We have been there again and again, only to lie awake at night thinking of The Brilliant Things We Ought To Have Said. It can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to snark back. We are rather shy, and these things don't always come easily to us. Our personalities are “confrontationally-challenged,” shall we say, which seems to be a quirk shared by many biliophiles! We’re likely the sort alpha-individuals refer to, smirkingly, as a "meak-voiced door-mat.” Yes, someone said this to us once. It was awful! Our insides were quaking, and yet we were unable to properly defend ourselves! But it doesn’t have to be that way. Help has arrived, friends, and we are delighted to share the news. In this week's fishwrap, we wrote about Lady Arabella Snark's (a/k/a A.C Kemp -- writer, slang expert, and MIT lecturer) The Perfect Insult for Every Occasion. Basically, the book is our NEW BIBLE, and that's not something we admit to lightly. Particularly when our Jewish mom is maybe reading this.

Kemp is extremely funny and clever, and we wished we could tell you more about her book in our little write-up. Fortunately, the Interweb has no space constraints. The Perfect Insult functions as an anti-ettiquite guide, ready to teach you about properly wounding, unconventional put-downs geared toward everyone from passive-agressive fucktards to your douchey co-worker. Also: mean boys, cruel family members, and snobs! There are quizzes and enlightening MENSA-level vocabulary lessons woven through the text. What’s an orchidectimy, you ask? “It sounds like a flower,” Kemp told us. “Or something that would be really nice. Except it’s removing your testes.”

The Perfect Insult is written from the perspective of Lady Snark, a character Kemp created for fun. What a card! What a kick! We heart Miss Snark. And you will, too, if you make the time to see her in her full glory -- engraved flask, elbow-length satin gloves, superior smile and all -- tomorrow at the BU Barnes & Noble (660 Beacon St) at 7 pm. Go! But first, read our interview outtakes with Kemp, in which she discusses her insult collection, the book's upcoming YouTube tie-in, and fake socialites.

How did you come to write the book?
It was kind of an organic thing, I guess. I had taught this slang class to international students and I wanted to write a book for international students on slang. I went to a bunch of publishers and none of them were interested in it. Around the same time I started Slang City, and it was really astonishing to me that most of the people who came to this web site were not international students but native speakers. Then I thought, oh, well I’ll do a book that’s connected to that. I decided on insults. But then, somehow, between the time that I came up with the idea and finishing writing the book it turned into something else. Part of it was that I had written in it in this sort of arch, ironic tone and when my agent took me on he said, Well, why don’t you try assigning an actual character to that voice? And I thought, "Oh, a socialite would be good!" I didn’t know anything about socialites so I read a bunch of books about them.

And was that when it morphed into an anti-ettiquite guide?
Once I started writing it in that voice, it kind of changed the direction. Originally it was just going to be a book about insults and different categories of insults. When I decided to do it that way, it became more of an anti-ettiquite kind of book. I ended up putting other things in, like, you know, information about exotic poisons.

Did you have a running collection of insults to cull from?
A lot of the stuff in the book I had to spend a great deal of time thinking about. The book has a lot of obscure words -- those, I just sort of collected. I hadn’t originally intended to include so many arcane words. But at some point in the early stages of the book I was reading The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl. It’s about Edgar Allen Poe and it’s one of those historically based books -- he wrote The Dante Club. So, he had all this vocabulary in there that was sort of the 19th century stuff that nobody uses anymore. And so I started just writing these things down on the backs of envelopes. Every time I would find something funny in a newspaper article or book, I would just write it on the back of an envelope until I had a very large collection of envelopes! Then I just started putting them into the book. Sometimes I would look for something that I had found somewhere else and though, that’s an unusual word. And then I’d go onto the online Oxford English Dictionary and I would find something else by mistake when I was looking for that.

Which section of the book is most dear to Miss Snark?
Well, I think the quiz in which you have to differentiate between grammar terms and sexual perversion and rocks and people from the Bible. That was one of my favorite parts. But the other part that I really liked is the letter on refusing invitations. Last week a bunch of my friends got together and one of my coworkers from MIT shot a video acting that out. I’m going through all of the shots but I’m hoping that in the next couple of weeks we’ll be putting that on YouTube. I was a little nervous to do it and have my friends do it, who were not professional actors, but they were amazing.

Are you planning on dressing up as your nom de plume for author events?
Yes, absolutely. This afternoon one of the tasks on my list is to order an engraved gin flask! She’s one of these people -- and this was something, when I was reading these various socalite books, there were these various real-life characters who had been from this poor background and married someone who was better than them, divorced them, married someone who was better than that, and kept moving themselves up the ladder. Actually, I don’t know if you noticed this but the dedication in the book is to this woman named Baroness Eloise Bosquet de Wagner Wehrborn. She was one of the characters that I found, but it was like a one line mention in a book about New York socialites. I looked it up and she was this woman who was a dressmaker, but she called herself a Baroness. She took a couple of her friends and moved to the Galapogos Islands and called herself the Empress of the Galapogos Islands. She would do things like steal her neighbor’s mail, and then charge them for it! When you look at the current socalites -- Paris Hilton? It’s like, that’s not what a socalite is supposed to be!

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