The suffix ‘-lover’ isn’t useful for constructing insults

The suffix ‘-lover’ isn’t useful for constructing insults September 14, 2016

A few points to follow up yesterday’s post about “What ‘SJW’ really means.”

I think it’s important to note that “SJW” is only one of many alleged insults employed by the alt-right, gamer-gater, basket of deplorables that are not actually insulting or in any way negative. “Social Justice Warrior” doesn’t work as an epithet because it’s not pejorative. To be a “social justice warrior” would be a Good Thing, and to refer to someone else by that title is to honor them.

But the same is true for a whole string of crudely hateful slurs employed by that crowd, would-be insults that get deconstructed and unintentionally transformed into honorifics due to their reflexive use of the suffix “-lover.”

Before we get into the appalling specific applications of that suffix, though, just consider what meaning it brings to the conversation. It says you are defined by your love. It says that love is the whole of your identity. That’s usually a reliable move when the goal is to insult another person. Select a single trait and reduce that other person to nothing but that trait. Define them with and confine them to that single thing and you deny them the dignity of being fully human. Usually.

But that doesn’t work with love. Another person can’t be reduced to a transcendent good. To define another as nothing but a “-lover” is an attempt to diminish them by identifying them with the cardinal virtue, with “the greatest of these.” The suffix “-lover” just doesn’t have much potential for forming insults. Calling someone else a “noisy gong and a clanging cymbal” might be insulting, but accusing them of love is an accidental form of praise.

The only way to make the suffix “-lover” function as a pejorative is by affixing it to something that is universally recognized as unworthy of love. The trick here is to find something hateful — something that ought to be hated, deplored and condemned — and to accuse the “-lover” of loving that. We might then try to employ, say, “shit-lover” or “scum-lover” as an insult. But even this is precarious because the hateful root has to do all the work — it has to carry enough negative connotation to wholly discolor and discredit the positive connotations of defining someone as one who loves. Unless you are painstakingly precise, the danger is that you will wind up sounding like you’re accusing the other person of being so wholly defined by love that their love extends even unto the unlovely. You can wind up, basically, accusing them of being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, causing rain and grace to fall on the deserving and the undeserving alike.

At that point, you’re no longer insulting the other person — you’re composing a Psalm of praise and lauding their infinite mercy and indiscriminate love.

Or, at most, you’re saying something open to multiple interpretations, like Haldane’s quip about God’s “inordinate fondness for beetles.”

This approach can be somewhat more successful when the X in the epithet X-lover is something morally repugnant — when the epithet is presented as some variation of “sin-lover.” Venial sins won’t cut it here — the accusation needs to involve some sin mortal and grave enough to justify its opposition to the superlative virtue of love. “Pride-lover” is a good bet — a cardinal sin to rival a cardinal virtue. “Abuse-lover” might also sort of work, given the severity of that sin. But many sins just can’t be made to fit grammatically — calling someone, say, a “greed-lover” or a “lust-lover” isn’t so much an insult as an invitation to re-read Aquinas’ discussions of sin as misdirected love. That can produce fruitful rumination on the psychological and philosophical meaning of virtue and vice, but that’s all rather far-removed from the original intent of hurtful name-calling.

The larger problem with any form of the insult “odious-sin-lover” is that it inevitably makes the person using it sound sanctimonious, like the hypocritical Puritans in a story by Nathanael Hawthorne or the religious scolds in a Molière satire. If the charge is credible, then no insult is needed — you can simply state the moral judgment directly: “That’s vile.” “That’s hateful.” “That’s deplorable.” The truth of such a judgment will stand or fall on its own — crafting it into a sin-lover epithet only distracts from that, leaving you vulnerable to “Gee, thanks, Rev. Dimmesdale” as an almost-sufficient response.

The “-lover” suffix might be more promising for insults if the English language offered a wider array of words for love, like the way that biblical Greek is able to distinguish between the sexual/romantic love of eros and the transcendent moral virtue of agape. Then we might be able to render some eros-specific form of the “-lover” suffix, ruling out any possibility other than the “if you love it so much why don’t you have sex with it?” intended meaning. But even then the suffix would suggest more about the repressed prudishness of the insulter than about the alleged perversion of the insultee. “I scold those who get their freak on in any way that does not meet with my approval” is not a strategically defensible position from which to launch insults. It sounds not just prudish but prurient — suggesting that you yourself have an inordinate interest and sexualized fascination with others’ appetites and activities.

"Shut your loving face uncle-lover ..."
“Shut your loving face uncle-lover …”

The English language steps up here with a solution — one that is both eminently practical and eminently profane. The eros-exclusive form of the “-lover” suffix already exists in such wide usage that it’s also come to function as a stand-alone pejorative noun. I’m referring, of course, to “-f**ker.” (That’s a terribly rude and uncouth word, of course, but we’re talking here about the crafting and deployment of effective insults, so if you’re looking for polite and couth, you’re in the wrong room.)

The suffix “-f**ker” avoids nearly all the pitfalls and accidental moralizing inherent in the unwieldy suffix “-lover.” It does a better job of clearly communicating the pejorative implications that “-lover” constructs are shooting for. Consider, for example, how you would respond if someone called you a pig-lover. That’s open to multiple interpretations — many of which are positive and some of which could be construed as downright admirable. “Pig-f**ker,” on the other hand … well, that just seems clearer. Clarity is good.

I seem to have wandered off on a bit of a tangent without addressing the specific variations of “-lover” employed by the anti-SJW crowd as an intended — but unintentionally self-refuting — insult. We’ll come back to that because that’s actually far more substantial and important than any of the rambling above.

But the lesser point here is still true. In general, the suffix “-lover” is best avoided by anyone attempting to insult another person.

One implication of this, oddly, is that it seems I’m arguing that gamer-gaters and anti-SJW trolls should be saying “-f**ker” far more often than they already do. That’s an odd way to put it, but I think it’s true. Saying what you mean is always best, even if what you mean is, well, mean.

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