Reader Question #20: Captain Awkward’s Emporium of Cutting Remarks

"Tact is just not saying true stuff." - Cordelia Chase

Dear Captain Awkward,

Are there times when the FU should not be silent when telling people the STFU? If so, do you have a combat guide for mild-mannered ladies who wear pearls and read a lot of Jane Austen?

Wanting to Get out the Sticks and Stones

Oh, my ladylike friend, one day you will be on the subway and a creepy strange man will be leering at you and trying to  talk to you, and where before you may have just tried to focus extra-hard on your book or retreated back into your happy place of recalling last night’s ball at Netherfield or mentally cataloging your spice rack, something will snap inside you and you will say “Listen, you creepy, disgusting motherfucker, why don’t you take five steps back from me because I just cannot handle your goddamn bullshit today” and it will feel fantastic.

Not everyone curses like a sailor in an extremely unprofessional manner, when, say, teaching a class on lighting for film and finding that every single light in the kit I’m using to demo is broken in a slightly different way.  Invective might not roll off the tongue for you, which is okay, because people who are just learning to cuss end up sounding kind of cute when they try.  It’s especially noticeable from novice actors and directors who attempt Mamet or Mamet-like (Mamet-ish?  Mamet-y?) dialogue.  They overemphasize the swears because the little kid inside them gets excited about saying them or they want to be dramatic, so the rejoinder to Creepy Subway Guy (above) comes out as “Listen, you creepy, disgusting MOTHER (pause) FUCKER, why don’t you take five steps back from me because I just cannot handle your GODDAMN (pause) BULLSHIT today.” Amateur hour.

Thankfully we have Miss Julia Sugarbaker to turn to in times of crisis.  Look, it’s been a long time since I’ve watched an episode of Designing Women and I have no idea what she’s so mad about in this clip but I’m pretty sure I agree with every word she’s saying.

You might have to age into that some to get the right mix of patrician elocution and crazy eyes, but that just means it’s something to look forward to! Does anyone know if Dixie Carter attended some kind of Auntie Mame-training academy and, if so, can I go, too?  Maybe there I can learn to cultivate pointed silence in the face of vapid absurdity.

If you want to ride down the middle of the road and can master a sufficiently cutting tone, here are some all-purpose phrases that might get you through a trying conversation if you’ve exhausted “Really,” Wow,” and “What.”

  • “Well, I’ll be doing the opposite of that, but thanks for your opinion.”
  • “It’s amazing that you think that’s your business.”
  • “Let’s just pretend this never happened. It will be less embarrassing for you.”

When I am rich and dead, teenage girls will get copies of The Portable Dorothy Parker and The Handmaid’s Tale* from my dead rich lady foundation, so that they learn exactly how depressing and terrifying life can be and develop the necessary sarcasm and drinking skills to cope.  Dorothy Parker could bring the pain.

So, you’re the man who can’t spell ‘fuck.‘”
-Dorothy Parker to Norman Mailer after publishers had convinced Mailer to replace the word with a euphemism, ‘fug,’ in his 1948 book, “The Naked and the Dead.”


Have you been watching Downton Abbey?  Because Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess Lady Grantham is delightful. When I use the word “cunty” to describe her character’s amazing ability to deliver a backhanded compliment, please believe that I mean to convey only respect and awe.

Lady Grantham: “You are quite wonderful the way you see room for improvement wherever you look. I never knew such reforming zeal.”
Mrs. Crawley: “I take that as a compliment.”
Lady Grantham: “I must’ve said it wrong.”

It seems what is required is to just remove one’s filter.  Strip it right off.  Why wait for dementia to set in when you could be enjoying an unfiltered life right now?

I hope you found this educational and improving.  Shall we take a turn about the room?


*What else (besides Auntie Mame, can’t believe I left that off) should we add to the curriculum for the Academy for Wayward Girls Who Want To Stay That Way?

19 thoughts on “Reader Question #20: Captain Awkward’s Emporium of Cutting Remarks

  1. Mary McCarthy was pretty catty. Her most famous cutting remark: on the Dick Cavett show she said of Lillial Hellman that “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'” She got sued for that.

    Also, Anita Loos. Her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which is actually in many ways better than the movie, which is itself great) is also really catty and hilarious. Her character Dorothy (based on herself) is constantly saying really mean and cutting things which the book’s central character and narrator Lorelei Lee blandly reports without understanding how completely cutting they are.

  2. Although I have only seen a few episodes of Kathy Bates in the new series Harry’s Law, and I have no idea whether or not it is any good because I am so blinded by my love for Kathy Bates, it is POSSIBLE that that should be added to the list.

  3. The tool I use most often is “I *beg* your pardon? ”

    I’m also fond of “It’s so kind of you to take an interest, and without my even asking!”

    “Thanks for your wholly unsolicited opinion!”

    And, in desperate straits,

    “Oh dear. I apologize for giving the impression that I give a damn what you think.”

      1. I have!

        As a southern woman, I grew up on this stuff. My sister and I, just this past summer, had to school a Yankee cousin about the fact that “bless your heart” is rarely meant kindly.

  4. Dorothy Parker! One of my personal favorites and patron saints of snark. Would that we had her Constant Reader today deservedly tearing up Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer…*sigh*

    1. Dorothy Parker reads Twilight….OMG.

      I wish I could pull it up for you: Years ago there was a hilarious LiveJournal poster who was reading Twilight (So You Don’t Have To).

  5. When I am rich and dead, teenage girls will get copies of The Portable Dorothy Parker and The Handmaid’s Tale* from my dead rich lady foundation, so that they learn exactly how depressing and terrifying life can be and develop the necessary sarcasm and drinking skills to cope.

    I would so work for that Foundation.

    I think Ms. Katherine Hepburn should be added to the list of barbed-tongued ladies. She whips out some very worthy dialogue in Desk Set.

  6. Have you considered a Deep South Immersion Program? I think there’s a trick to slightly shifting your posture, widening your eyes, perhaps – perhaps! – clutching your pearls, and murmuring one of the following as multi-syllabicly as possible:

    “My goodness!”
    “I am so sorry; I wasn’t aware.”

    The trick here is that as long as you preface anything with an appropriate look of mild mannered surprise and “I’m sorry,” or possibly a “Bless your heart,” you are then free to imply that the listener has the IQ of a toothpick, and you are simply apologizing for being unaware of this tragic fact and were thus unable to make the necessary adjustments. It’s really the body language that does it, I think, with the implication that this person’s behavior is so surprising it is simply beyond the pale, but one is entirely too well bred to mention it. The problem is that most of the rest of the world/country does not understand this message. Also, I rather doubt it would work for the leering mass transit riders or Egyptian protesters.

    1. I thought of this when I rewatched the Julia Sugarbaker scene. I especially like how she closes the door and blocks the exit with her body before going into the rant.

  7. A particular favourite of mine is “Well, aren’t you adorable!” Of course said as if to a chatty 5-year-old.

  8. Another gem is the Millionairess, 80% of which is an aristocratic Maggie Smith turning out masterpieces of the art of cleverly insulting people. Or at least it *should* be 80% at the very least, but Bernard Shaw liked to do other things with his writing sometimes (like creating amusing situations and a storyline & all).

    Anyhow, because the internet loves us, it’s all on youtube } {

  9. I know this is an old thread, but I wanted to add something which I have used for ages to the list of polite but cutting responses. I can’t remember who told me about it, but it works BRILLIANTLY for me, so I wanted to share it. This is how it goes:
    Rude person: [uncalled-for personal remark]
    You: (politely) Wow, that was really rude. You must be so embarrassed.
    Rude person: *goldfish mouth* …

    I’ve never had anyone manage a comeback from that one. Usually there’s an awkward pause, then they change the subject, or laugh sheepishly and admit they stepped over the line.

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