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Invective is the use of abusive language that expresses disapproval or attacks someone, a topic, object, idea, insinuation, or other.

Invective language can be in speech and writing, meaning it can be used in everyday conversations as well as in planned-out literary works. It’s possible to find the device used in poetry, prose, plays, and more. When a writer uses it, it’s usually to demonstrate the deep emotions one of their characters, or perhaps the writer themselves is experiencing. Sometimes this term is also known as vituperation or vitriol. 

Invective pronunciation: in-vehk-tiv

Invective definition and examples


Types of Invective Language 

Invective language is widespread. It’s more likely than not that one will come upon examples every day, whether on the street, among friends, or while watching television or reading a book. There are two distinct types of this language, though:

  • High: the use of formal, negative language. These examples are more creative and less crude.
  • Low: the use of rude and offensive language. Includes base insults and uncreative language.


Definition of Invective

Invective language appears in poetry, short stories, novels, prose poetry, and more. It is used by the writer when they want to express disapproval at the actions of a particular character, circumstance, idea, institution, or another part of their story. Sometimes, they might have their narrator (who could be the writer themselves) use the language, but at other times they’ll choose to put the words into another character’s dialogue. The word “invective” comes from the Latin meaning “abusive” or “censorious” language. 

In Roman times, personal invectives were widely used, especially as they applied to character assassinations. That is, a purposeful attempt to destroy another’s reputation by demeaning their character. There are examples from famous historical figures like Cicero, who used invectives to speak out against people like Mark Antony. During this period, speakers could charge others with poor writing and speaking skills, generally poor behavior, cowardice, and avarice, among others. For instance, Mark Antony was accused of marrying Cleopatra and becoming her submissive subject, therefore losing his Roman identity. 


Examples of Invectives in Literature 

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare is famed today for his creative use of language. Many of his original phrases and words are now popular parts of everyday speech. But, he is perhaps even better known for his humorous insults scattered throughout his literary works. In The Comedy of Errors, readers can find a more traditional use of invective language. This is one of the Bard’s earliest plays. It was a short, farcical comedy that involved two setoff twins. Consider the following lines: 

He is deformed, crooked, old and sere,
Ill-faced, worse bodied, shapeless everywhere;
Vicious, ungentle, foolish, blunt, unkind;
Stigmatical in making, worse in mind

In these lines, Shakespeare rhymes a series of insults. He often used insults aimed at one’s physical form, in this case calling someone “deformed” and “crooked.” 


King Lear by William Shakespeare 

In King Lear, a tragedy about Britain’s mythological Leir, the poet uses other types of insults. The story follows Lear, who loses his power and kingdom to two daughters. He loses his mind over the course of the play. It was first performed in 1606. 

A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a

base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,

hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a

lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,

glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;

one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a

bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but

the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,

and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: […]

This is a classic example of invective language. Kent goes on and on, railing on Oswald, who doesn’t understand why he’s being treated this way. Kent continues, even angrier when Oswald denies knowing him. 

Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry including his 154 sonnets


The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald 

There are a few examples of invective language in The Great Gatsby. Consider this conversation between Tom and Nick. It occurs when Nick finds out that Tom has a mistress who visits him in New York. Tom uses an invective to describe the woman’s husband while not acknowledging the fact that he is truly at fault. 

“It does her good to get away.”

“Doesn’t her husband object?”

“Wilson? He thinks she goes to see her sister in New York. He’s so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.”

Tom says that his mistress’s husband is “so dumb he doesn’t know he’s alive.” This simple statement is quite effective. It’s a good example of a high invective in that it doesn’t use crass language to get the speaker’s point across. There is a great deal one could say negatively about Tom, as well as all the other characters in the novel, something that Fitzgerald was very much aware of.


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 

In this popular anti-war novel, Heller uses many different examples of invectives. Consider these lines in which Yossarian is swearing at Orr. 

Why,” swore Yossarian at him approvingly, “you evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a bitch, did you walk around with anything in your cheeks?”

He uses these words after Orr circumvented Yossarian’s inquiry into why he walks around with “crab apples” in his cheeks. Orr replied by saying, “they’ve got a better shape than horse chestnuts.” The absurdity of this statement gets to Yossarian, and he starts yelling. Orr, unable to truly process what Yossarian is saying, responds with the following lines: “I didn’t,” Orr said, “walk around with anything in my cheeks. I walked around with crab apples in my cheeks. When I couldn’t get crab apples, I walked around with horse chestnuts. In my cheeks.”


Related Literary Terms 

  • Literary Argument: the argument of a piece of literature is a statement towards the beginning of a work that declares what it’s going to be about.
  • Pathos: an appeal made by the writer to the audience’s emotions in order to make them feel something.
  • Imagery: refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. These are the important sights, sounds, feelings, and smells.
  • Logos:  the use of logic to create a persuasive argument in writing.


Other Resources 

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