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Those choice words that say 'I hate you'

The Princess of Wales, it seems, can whisper a mean insult. But where's the wit, asks Peter Guttridge
According to an extravagantly billed "World Exclusive" in the Sun this week, the Princess of Wales reduced her children's nanny to tears at Christmas with a "wounding seven-word lie". The taunt was, the paper alleged, based on a "totally false suggestion" that 30-year-old Tiggy Legge-Bourke had had an abortion.

Whatever the truth or otherwise of the Sun's report it offers sad evidence that insults aren't what they used to be. When Bessie Braddock MP said to Winston Churchill "You, sir, are drunk," Churchill ensured himself a place in the reference books with his reply: "And you, madam, are ugly. In the morning, however, I shall be sober."

Maybe it is the pace of modern life, maybe it is the libel laws, but where among the savagings by dead sheep and the references to "fuck-me shoes" in the modern thesaurus of bitchiness do you get insults with verve, insults which are all the more lethal for their elegance and wit?

The spat between the writers Julie Burchill and Camille Paglia after Burchill gave a bad review to one of Paglia's books was, in essence, what schoolgirls call a bitch fight - shrieking, scratching and pulling hair being the main features. When Burchill wrote that Paglia "couldn't think her way out of wet paper bag", Paglia complained. Burchill responded (by fax): "Are you SO insecure you can't get one critical review without throwing a temper tantrum? What a GIRL you are. Perhaps it's because you got famous so late."

Paglia's reply, calling Burchill "a local commodity, completely unknown outside England", produced a Burchill retort which concluded "your Diana programme was crap". Not exactly Dorothy Parker, is it?

Parker was the supreme stylist of put-downs and many more have been attributed to her than she actually said (or, more usually, wrote). Her best is a review in which she wrote of Katharine Hepburn "running the gamut of emotions from A to B" and advised another actress to stand well upstage "lest she catch acting from her".

In its crush of competing egos, Hollywood has always been a hotbed of insult and feud. Sadly, long feuds - such as that between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford - produced little that is quotable.

The two most famous insults to Hollywood performers came from visitors to Los Angeles. Margaret Asquith, wife of the Prime Minister, was introduced to Jean Harlow. Harlow innocently asked if the final "t" in Margaret was pronounced or silent. "No, it's silent," Asquith replied. "As in Harlow." Somerset Maugham watched Spencer Tracy filming Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and asked: "Which part is he playing now?"

These days Sharon Stone, though lacking wit, has brought some refreshing outspokenness to Hollywood. She once remarked that "all the girls who turned down Basic Instinct were stupid". Greta Scacchi, one of those girls, later said in an interview: "I noticed that the scripts I turned down Sharon Stone then does ... in some ways I'm quite pleased that my little discarded morsels go to Sharon."

Some people are struck dumb by insults, some people just are dumb. Then there's Paula Yates, whose frustration was palpable when on Have I Got News For You she faced a bombardment of insults from Ian Hislop and Co. Hislop laughed her to scorn when the best response she could managed was to call him "sperm of the Devil".

Of course, it's easy to come up with a good retort after the event or from a distance. When Anna Ford threw a glass of wine in Jonathan Aitken's face during a tense episode at TV-am, he had time to think up an effective riposte, even though he was not as yet lugging the Sword of Truth round with him. "I wasn't particularly floored or shaken by it, because as a father of three children under three I am quite used to keeping cool when childish tantrums are going on."

Some insults, over time, become all-purpose - such as Kitty Muggeridge's remark that David Frost "rose without trace", which has since been applied to a panoply of people.

Some remain precise. Harold Pinter's first wife, Vivian Merchant, commented when he left her for Antonia Fraser: "He didn't need to take a change of shoes. He can always wear hers. She has very big feet, you know."