Drama comes and goes, but shade is forever. Sure, social media has had some epic clap-backs in its time—but when it comes to insults, take it from us. They don’t make them like they used to. From Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s world-class put-downs to King Henry VIII’s infamous antics, here are the 50 biggest burns in history.
Historical Insults Facts
1. Power Nap
An all-time great insulter was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who’s back catalogue of burns is so big, he’s got several appearances on this list. But let’s start with an appetizer. While Churchill was in parliament one day, another member got mad at him for snoozing. “Mr. Churchill,” the man said, “must you fall asleep while I’m speaking?”
Churchill looked up and said, “No, it’s purely voluntary.”
2. Music To My Ears
It’s a good thing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a legitimate musical genius, because he was also a snooty jerk, if we’re honest. One day, a fan came up to him and begged the composer for advice on how to write symphonies. Our Amadeus Mozart took one look at the man and gave him the 18th-century version of “Bless your heart.”
Mozart: A symphony is a very complex musical form. Perhaps you should begin with some simple lieder and work your way up to a symphony.
Admirer: But Herr Mozart, you were writing symphonies when you were 8 years old.
Mozart: Yes, but I never asked anybody how.
3. Short And Savage
Mahatma Gandhi might have been a famous pacifist, but the man knew how to throw a metaphorical punch. One day in his travels, someone asked the spiritual leader the seemingly innocent question: “What do you think of Western civilization?” Gandhi responded with eight absolutely cutting words. “I think it would be a good idea.”
4. Just A Little Prick
Truman Capote is most famous today for his novel (turned movie) Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his dainty character Holly Golightly, but the writer was far from polite in real life. When a random man accosted him on the street, whipped off his pants, and asked him to autograph his you-know-what, Capote had the perfect comeback.
“I don’t know if I can autograph it,” he said, “But I can initial it.”
5. Foolish Games
The American writer Dorothy Parker was one of the sharpest voices of the 20th century, which is probably why this is only her first appearance on this list as well. One day, Parker was out socializing when a drunk, boorish man announced, “I can’t bear fools.” Quick as ever, Parker reportedly sniped, “Apparently, your mother could.”
6. I’ll Make A Man Out Of You
English playwright Noel Coward was notorious for his wit—and his healthy sense of drama. When his rather plain friend, the American writer Edna Ferber, started wearing snappy, tailored suits, Coward once looked her up and down and said, to her face, “You almost look like a man.” Luckily, Edna gave as good as she got. She simply replied, “So do you.”
7. Friends Who Slay Together Stay Together
Winston Churchill was a good friend of the playwright George Bernard Shaw, and the pair loved ribbing each other. When Shaw had a new play out, he asked Churchill if he could come to the opening night. Churchill wrote back, “Impossible to come to first night. Will come to second night, if you have one.” I love it when friends roast each other.
8. Hail To The Chief
In high school American history tests, a lot of people tend to forget about Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States. That’s a darn shame, because he was actually a master of the insult. After seeing a musical performance, someone asked him “What did you think of the singer’s execution?” Coolidge’s brilliant reply? “I’m all for it.” Honestly, I just spit out my drink.
9. Ouch, Right In The Gut
Napoleon Bonaparte famously broke things off with his beloved wife Josephine because she couldn’t bear him any children. Oh, you think that’s the burn? Well, it gets even worse. When he took up with the fertile Marie-Louise of Austria instead, the little Emperor had some big news for the poor girl. He told her straight up: “It is a womb that I am marrying.” Aw, true love.
10. Facing The Truth
Sometimes, it’s not about giving an insult, but about taking it with pride. When an opponent called “Honest” Abe Lincoln two-faced, the would-be president had a surprising tactic to deal with the put-down. “I’ll leave it to my audience to decide,” he shrugged, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?” Crafty Abe, crafty.
11. Batting $100,000
In 1930, salary negotiations between famed baseball player Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees broke down spectacularly. To the Yanks’ great annoyance, Ruth demanded $85,000 dollars for three years—a salary that out-ranked even the annual income of sitting President Herbert Hoover. When asked why he thought he deserved more than the literal President, Ruth gave a now-famous reply.
The Great Bambino apparently just shrugged and said, “I had a better year than he did.”
12. I’m Not Like The Other Girls
Like his fellow composer Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven could be kind of an arrogant jerk—even to his own patrons, AKA the source of his much-needed income. Still, he didn’t seem to mind offending his ATM machines. He once wrote to his patron Prince Lichnowsky, “There are many princes and there will continue to be thousands more, but there is only one Beethoven.”
13. The Pirate’s Revenge
Anne Bonny and Calico Jack roamed the seven seas as fearsome pirate lovers, but eventually their luck—and love—ran out. When authorities caught their ship, Bonny stayed on deck to fight the losing battle, while the cowardly Jack ran below. It was not a good look, and his (now ex) girlfriend did not mince words when she let him know it.
After he was sentenced to hang, Bonny spat out, “Had you fought like a man, you need not have been hang’d like a dog.” Drag him, Anne.
14. Cut Her, Crawford
Joan Crawford was the queen of the feud, most famously for her cat-fights with fellow actress Bette Davis—which we will definitely get to. But her little-known spat with starlet Mercedes McCambridge is just as juicy. The two women already hated each other when they starred together in Johnny Guitar, but the bitterness reached epic proportions on set.
At one point, a drunken Crawford tossed McCambridge’s clothes onto the highway, leaving them for cars to tread over. McCambridge would go on to call Crawford “a mean, tipsy, powerful, rotten-egg lady,” but Crawford was no fan either. “I have four children,” she was said to have drawled about McCambridge, “I do not need a fifth.”
15. Never A Dull Moment
Good old Winston Churchill gave us another glorious, scathing nugget in 1953. Speaking of the American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Churchill kept his disapproval short, sweet, and blissfully nasty. As Prime Minister, he once unprofessionally quipped of the man: “Dull, Duller, Dulles.” Thank you so much for your service, Winston.
16. Sibling Rivalry
In old Hollywood, siblings Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland were two of the biggest starlets on the silver screen—but their feud was even bigger. They competed ruthlessly for roles, but Fontaine beat out her sister for a part in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Suspicion, and even nabbed herself an Oscar. De Havilland was so incensed, she waited years to get her perfect revenge.
When de Havilland finally won an Oscar six years later, she unleashed all her pettiness. Fontaine tried to shake her hand backstage, and de Havilland ignored her completely. It was such a huge snub that the sisters didn’t speak for five years afterward.
17. Boxing Clever
Muhammad Ali could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee—in both the ring and his words. The trash-talker’s best one-liner came after sports journalist Howard Cosell kept complaining that Ali was going down hill. “You’re always talking about, ‘Muhammad, you’re not the same man you were 10 years ago.’” Ali quipped, “Well, I asked your wife, and she told me you’re not the same man you was two years ago!”
18. Dearly Departed
The name “Judge Ebenezar Rockwood Hoar” doesn’t necessarily make me think “witty,” but I’d be wrong. In 1884, Judge Hoar’s sworn enemy Wendell Phillips’ passed on, and there was a big funeral in the works. During this time, a colleague approached the Judge and asked him if he was going to be in attendance. “No,” Judge Hoar snapped, “but I approve it.”
19. Chivalry Is For The Birds
Genius directors aren’t exactly known for their level heads, but the notoriously picky Alfred Hitchcock blows them all out of the water. When his muse and leading actress Tippi Hedren refused his romantic advances, Hitchcock took the incredibly creepy low road and had a doll replica made of her. But that’s not even the worst part.
He then placed the doll in a coffin—and sent it to Hedren’s six-year-old daughter, Melanie Griffith.
20. Head In The Clouds
You may not have heard of Stanley Baldwin, who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in the late 1930s—but believe me when I say that people all over England mega hated him, mostly because he botched up a lot of foreign policy in WWII. Maybe that’s why the famously sharp writer George Orwell dealt him an absolute zinger.
“One could not even dignify him with the name of stuffed shirt,” Orwell said. “He was simply a hole in the air.”
21. I’ve Come To Wish You An Unhappy Birthday
Thing is, our friend Winston Churchill took one look at Orwell’s put down of Stanley Baldwin and said, “Dude, hold my beer.” On the occasion of Baldwin’s 80th birthday, someone contacted Churchill and asked him to make a boilerplate congratulatory statement. But this is Winston Churchill we’re talking about, so he did one better.
First, Churchill declined to send the very elderly Baldwin any birthday greetings at all, and then responded, “I wish Stanley Baldwin no ill, but it would have been much better had he never lived.”
22. Them’s Fighting Words
Besides being an acclaimed writer, Norman Mailer was also a notorious macho man and mega misogynist. Which is why this story of his comeuppance is extra satisfying. One day, critic Gore Vidal gave Mailer’s latest work a bad review. Ever the gentleman, when Mailer next saw Vidal, he went over and punched him, knocking him over. Except Vidal had the last laugh.
While lying on the floor, Vidal simply sniped, “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.”
23. Everyone’s A Critic
Casablanca. It’s maybe the most classic of classic films, and Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s chemistry is palpable on-screen. Well, so most people think. The bitter actor John Gielgud summed up Bergman’s role with much harsher words: “She speaks five languages and can’t act in any of them.” What’s French for “fatality”?
24. A Total Knockout
The world of boxing has a lot of sass, and although most people think of Muhammad Ali when it comes to trash talk, the lesser-known boxer Willie Pep still once hit an opponent with an incredible (figurative) one-two punch. When the man entered the ring, Pep told him to “Lie down so I can recognize you.” Ding ding ding!
25. Critical Sass
In 1934, the beautiful actress Jean Harlow reportedly went head-to-head with the cutting British socialite Margot Asquith at a dinner party—and received a brutal comeback. Apparently, the naïve Harlow kept pronouncing Asquith’s name as “Mar-GOT” rather than “Mar-GO.” Unable to bear it any more, Asquith snapped back, “No, no; the ‘t’ is silent, as in ‘Harlow.’”
That’s right, she called poor unsuspecting Jean a “Harlot.”
26. Horse Play
The Hollywood feud between actress Zsa Zsa Gabor and her fellow starlet Elke Sommer is the stuff gossip dreams are made of, and it came with its fair share of one-liners. Reportedly, the catfight started on a television special both actresses were on, as Sommer watched Gabor try to climb onto a horse. Sommer reportedly muttered, “Poor horse.” But it didn’t end there.
27. Courtly Games
The Gabor-Sommer feud is so juicy, it deserves another spot on this list. After hearing Sommer’s comment, Gabor called her a “100-year-old Grandmother”—in print, in a widely distributed publication. Then, when Sommer took Gabor to libel court and won, Gabor immediately announced her intent to appeal, stating bitterly, “I’d rather see her starve to death than give her one single dollar.”
28. He Had Dumps Like A Truck
Surprise! Renaissance boys can have epic catfights, too. Believe it or not, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci despised each other, and the world-class artists went about expressing their hatred with a pettiness that would make even a 13-year-old girl quake. Michelangelo once insulted da Vinci in public, so da Vinci dished it right back.
When Michelangelo beat out da Vinci to create the statue David, da Vinci didn’t take it lying down. At a meeting about the statue, da Vinci nonchalantly suggested that they cover up David’s inappropriate nether regions. This was actually ploy to emasculate Michelangelo as its creator—and even more bizarrely, it worked. When David went up, he was wearing a sensual brass thong.
29. Poetic Justice
The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde is known for his razor-sharp wit, with biting one-liners like “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” So it makes sense that when he turned his focus onto the popular and uppity poet Alexander Pope, Wilde let it all hang out. “There are two ways of disliking poetry,” he quipped, “one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.”
30. A Grave Mistake
This one is absolutely bonkers. The 19th-century artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti is famous for painting beautiful women, and many of his works were based off his wife, Lizzie Siddall. Unfortunately for Dante’s inspiration—and even more unfortunately for poor Lizzie—she passed on at the age of only 32. Which is when Dante dealt her a heartbreaking betrayal.
As symbol of his grief, Rossetti buried his beloved along with a collection of his poems, so a piece of him would always be with her. Except as the years wore on, he kept thinking, “Man, I really liked those poems I left with my wife’s rotting corpse.” What’s an artist to do? In Dante’s case, the answer to that is: literally, grave robbing.
Rossetti exhumed Lizzie’s grave, snatched the poems, and published them in a folio. Lizzie was too dead to be offended, but I’m appalled enough at the insult for the both of us.
31. Chief Of Shade
Henry Clay was a 19th-century politician in the middle of a run for the presidency when he claimed “I would rather be right than be president.” Unfortunately for Clay, this left the door wide open for his fellow statesman Thomas Brackett Reed to absolutely dunk on the dude. As Reed reportedly said, “The gentleman need not trouble himself. He’ll never be either.”
32. Art Imitates Life
Oscar Wilde was such a formidable wit in his day that we probably attribute too many one-liners to him. In fact, the famous artist James McNeill Whistler even thought that Wilde actually plagiarized most of his bon mots from his more talented friends—and one evening at a party, McNeill let loose on the Irish playwright.
During the soiree, Whistler made a joke and Wilde commented, “I wish I had said that.” Without so much as a pause, Whistler archly replied, “You will, Oscar, you will.”
33. Bedroom Byes
Victorian art critic John Ruskin appreciated beautiful paintings and sculptures of naked women, which made his rejection of his pretty, young wife Effie Gray all the more insulting. The night he married Effie, Ruskin was reportedly so disgusted at his first sight of an actual female body, he couldn’t bring himself to consummate the union. Like, ever.
As he put it, “Though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion.” After six unhappy years, Effie left Ruskin for his protégé John Everett Millais, who presumably wasted no time blowing her mind. They did have 8 children together.
34. Sore Winner
Bette Davis and Joan Crawford had a legendary feud—but few people realize just how disturbing it got. After they both filmed Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Davis got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, while Crawford shockingly did not. But no matter, the notoriously crafty Crawford got to work on an ingenious plot.
Crawford contacted all the other Best Actress nominees and “graciously” offered to accept any award on their behalf in the event that they couldn’t attend the show. Since they were all located on the East coast, they all agreed. Sure enough, Davis lost out, and Anne Bancroft won the award but wasn’t able to attend. Like clockwork, Crawford waltzed onto the stage and accepted the statuette in front of a fuming Davis.
35. Where There’s A Will, There’s A Slay
Oh, Joanie. Even after she passed on, Joan Crawford still had a few more catty tricks up her sleeve. In her will, Crawford left her children Cindy and Cathy $77,500 each, while she infamously shut out two of her other children, Christina and Christopher. Even worse, this was no mere forgetful snub. Crawford explicitly disinherited them.
As she wrote, “It is my intention to make no provision herein for my son, Christopher, or my daughter, Christina, for reasons which are well known to them.” Now that’s how you craft an insult: Write it, then die. There’s simply no room for comebacks.
36. Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind
Blonde bombshell actress Mamie Van Doren once made an enemy out of Elizabeth Taylor, which is never a good idea. Van Doren had been dating Taylor’s ex-husband, hotel heir Nicky Hilton, and the infamously vengeful Taylor was in fine form about the slight. If Van Doren and Hilton showed up to the same party as Taylor, she would make a big show of leaving every single time.
37. Drive-by Sniping
In fact, Mamie Van Doren was the queen of Hollywood drama, so it makes sense that she’s got another entry on this list, this time with fellow blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield. The two actresses were constantly in competition for roles, and Mansfield jealously despised Van Doren. So when the pair worked on The Las Vegas Hillbillys together, it all unraveled.
Mansfield refused to share any screen time with Van Doren, spitting out that she was “the drive-in’s answer to Marilyn Monroe.”
38. A Hairy Situation
Lord George Byron was the bad boy poet and notorious lothario of the 19th century. As it happens, Byron also knew how to sling a mean stinger. Both of these facts probably explain why the end of his illicit affair with a beautiful firebrand named Lady Caroline Lamb turned into such a balls-to-the-wall train wreck. Need proof?
After a series of antics that included Lamb sending him hair clippings of her nether regions, Byron finally called it off. A desperate Lamb then demanded that Byron send her a lock of his hair before they settled things. Instead, Byron mailed over a lock of his new girlfriend’s hair. I want to be mad, but all I feel is respect.
39. A Burn For The Ages
One evening, Dorothy Parker was attending a party alongside a slew of other distinguished guests, including a beautiful, snobby debutante. As the women were going into the dining room, the socialite made a big show of deference. She then sniped, “Age before beauty, Mrs. Parker.” It’s the kind of remark that might leave anybody else speechless—but Dorothy Parker was not just anyone else.
She smiled sweetly at the debutante and said, “and pearls before swine” before she walked right past.
40. Rolling In Her Grave
Mark Twain was a renowned American author who probably knew how difficult it is to write a novel, but he apparently didn’t care when it came to long-dead author Jane Austen. When talking about Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice, Twain once sniffed that every time he tried to read it, “I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Well ok, Mark.
41. Read To Filth
You’ve probably never heard of Old Hollywood actress Ilka Chase, but you’ll remember her name once you’re finished with this story. In the 1940s, Chase started writing a series of autobiographical books, but apparently one of her fellow actresses didn’t believe her bona-fide talent. One day, the starlet simpered to Chase, “I enjoyed reading your book, who wrote it for you?”
Without missing a beat, Chase reportedly replied, “Darling, I’m so glad that you liked it. Who read it to you?” Somebody call an ambulance, there’s a woman down.
42. Stay Weird
In 1980, Hollywood staple Mel Brooks produced the film Elephant Man, tapping the dynamo David Lynch to direct. When the creative pair screened the avant-garde film to conservative studio executives, the suits weren’t happy and asked Lynch to remove some of his most bizarre and haunting scenes. Brooks’ response was legendary.
He said: “We are involved in a business venture. We screened the film for you to bring you up to date as to the status of that venture. Do not misconstrue this as our soliciting the input of raging primitives.” The scenes stayed in—and the movie got nominated for Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Take that!
43. My Name In Lights
Sometimes your insult is so good, even your own name becomes a euphemism for it. Gotz von Berlichgen, AKA Gotz of the Iron Hand, was a German knight in the 16th century, and he was one unforgettable man. He fought in a peasant’s revolution with the peasants, got into a whole bunch of personal feuds, and generally just roamed around the countryside raising heck.
According to the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of Berlichgen’s feuds created an immortal insult. While under siege, the enemy captain demanded that Berlichgen surrender. Berlichgen’s only reply was, “Tell him that he can lick my arse!” After that, you only had to mention the name “Berlichgen” in polite society to get the same phrase across.
When old Hollywood director Billy Wilder wasn’t impressed with an acquaintance’s musical tastes, he let him know it in the most petty way possible: a sick burn. As Wilder said of the man, “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.”
45. Animal Farm
The notoriously seductive Elizabeth Taylor is another GOAT when it comes to insults, and she kept this one short and sweet. As she once said, “Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses.”
46. Not-So Mellow Yellow
King Henry VIII didn’t get his horrific reputation by sitting around and being nice to people, but we’re just here to recount his greatest insults—and this one is a doozy. Henry had an infamously difficult time divorcing his wife Catherine of Aragon for his Queen 2.0, Anne Boleyn, so when Catherine finally kicked the bucket, Henry “paid his respects” in the most cruel way imaginable.
According to reports, both Henry and Anne jubilantly wore head-to-toe yellow when they heard the good news. Sure, some people say that the yellow was actually in mourning, but given that we know Henry was a real messy dude who loved drama, I’ve got my doubts…
47. I’m Gonna Go With…Nah
Everyone knows Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river, but few people understand just how much of a legendary “screw you guys” move it was. At the time, Rome was super uncomfortable with how much power the young Caesar was gaining, and they ordered him to disband his army and to definitely, definitely not cross the Rubicon into Italy with his men in tow.
Well, what do you think he did? He crossed the heck out of that river with a buttload of men. It was an act of defiance that eventually won him the dictatorship of Rome, but Caesar was pretty chill about it at the time. After he did it, he reportedly tossed out the now-iconic one-liner: “alea iacta est,” or “the die is cast.”
48. Swipe Left Regrets
After only seeing a portrait of the mysterious Anne of Cleves, King Henry VIII decided to make her his bride. As anyone could’ve told him, this was not a good idea. When Henry finally saw Anne in person, he was apparently so shocked at her ugliness, he immediately demanded an annulment—yet historians have suggested a more disturbing reason for his disgust.
49. I Never Liked You Anyway
You see, Anne might have insulted Henry first. As it turns out, Henry met Anne of Cleves once before their official meeting—and their introduction couldn’t have gone worse. Henry disguised himself and snuck into her roadside accommodations to get a sneak peek of his bride. He then hugged and kissed her, expecting his soulmate to somehow understand who he was. Spoiler: She didn’t.
Like most women faced with a random dude harassing them on the street, Anne treated the king coldly. As a result, some historians believe Henry decided to pre-emptively reject her before she could embarrass him in turn.
50. This. Is. Sparta!
Philip II of Macedon was one of the most feared generals in the ancient world, with credentials like defeating the great city-state of Athens, perfecting the military phalanx formation, and, oh you know, being the father of Alexander the Great. No biggie. But Philip finally met his match in the mighty Spartan army.
During his years of campaigning, Philip famously sent a threatening message to the city of Sparta. He declared that if he entered their land, he would raze Sparta to the ground and enslave the Spartans forever. The Spartans sent back just one brutal word as a reply. “If.” Philip backed down, and his mastery over the Greeks exempted Sparta as the only place that withstood him.