Word of the Week: Flyting

Flyting (n): A ritual, poetic exchange of insults practiced mainly between the 5th and 16th centuries.  From the Scots, meaning quarreling or contention.  You can find examples in Norse, Ango-Saxon, and Medieval literature, right up to Shakespeare.  This is an art that has sadly fallen into desuetude, perhaps because of the decline of verse in poetry.  Fortunately, we now have Rap, which is the the perfect genre for flyting.

You would think the practice would persist in the political arena, and so it does to some extent, although without the poetic element that gives it such charm.  Mere insult does not a flyting make.  Without verse, we can at least fall back on metaphorical ingenuity.

The best modern example I can come up with is Harriet Harman’s characterization of Danny Alexander, at last year’s Scottish Labour Party conference, as a ginger rodent.  Later she apologized, fearing people would construe it as an attack on all gingers.  Why?  Sometimes I despair.  This was a long distance flyting since they come from different parties.  Alexander’s Twitter response: I am proud to be ginger and rodents do valuable work cleaning up mess others leave behind.  Red squirrel deserves to survive, unlike Labour.  I leave it to you to judge the winner of this contest.

It’s all a bit feak and weeble.  Here’s a proper Celtic example of the corollary of flyting, a boast battle, as interpreted by Horrible Histories.  This gives some idea of the energy and inventiveness that should go into it.

But it’s alive and well on South Park, and the current World Flyting Champion must surely be Eric Cartman.

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