Many years ago, I sat next to a gentleman who had printed out the NATO Phonetic Alphabet and kept a copy at his desk. He used it during phonecalls where he had to read out long strings of numbers and letters. I never quite liked the words that the letters were mapped to, so one day I stayed late and created the first iteration of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet of Insults. To test it out in the field, I created a table formatted exactly like my coworker’s and replaced his copy with my revision.
Unfortunately, he caught himself before he called someone an imbecile over the phone, but that copy ended up immortalized and pasted to a desk divider for several years–even after I left the company–only being taken down about four months ago.
The motivation for a phonetic alphabet of insults is that as political correctness limits what we can say, it is necessary that the modern provocateur keeps his insults sharp. Name-calling has evolved in 2020 and I hope the terms contained in this sheet can help you communicate your thoughts more clearly.
NATO Phonetic Alphabet of Insults
Composition of the List
This collection of insults is meant to cover all the bases. Some are great for general usage, others are highly situational. I excluded very obscure words, compound words that aren’t actually words, and words that are considered offensive. These aren’t meant to be used for shock value or to end a conversation, rather to maintain versatility and sharpness in dialogue, diatribe, or rant.
Justification and Alternatives
Of course, these insults can vary along regional lines or they can vary based on your age and what media you consume. There were some tough choices here, and some excluded words deserve to be spoken.
A – Amateur
Amateur is a fairly weak insult. My preferred A-word is assclown, by far, but I didn’t want to use profanities in this list. Still, using amateur as a blanket insult is effective because it will cause the target to wonder what is amateurish about them.
B – Bozo [the Clown]
This is a crowd favorite that I have seen resurging cyclically when popular media personalities wield it. This is a go-to insult for me, but it’s also a term of endearment for friends who have clownish tendencies. I’ve been using this heavily for years. Bozo the Clown lives on.
C – Clown
The image of the clown has been and will always be hilarious. A clown is a walking joke and this is among the most hurtful insults of any on this list. Yes, there are more hurtful C-words, but a well-placed “clown” is hard to come back from, especially with so much imagery (circus, red nose, clown shoes) that can be used to inject this into any context.
The scholars among us may prefer to use “cretin” but I don’t think the term is nearly as effective as it is obscure. “Creep,” however, can be a masterful putdown when used against men with large egos.
D – Doofus
A doofus is someone who is truly incompetent but still takes themselves seriously. This is a great word to vocalize because the first syllable can be intonated in many different ways. Honorable mention here is the word “dotard,” which was used against President Trump by the North Korean regime. There’s a time and place to call someone a “drag,” a “dud,” “dumbo,” “dunce,” “dummy,” “dimwit,” or a “drunk,” but I use these terms infrequently. There is also the word “ditz” which I dislike using because it is phonetically similar to “bitch” and its connotation is easily lost in the heat of the moment.
E – Eyesore
Describing a physical structure as an eyesore is a very “Boomer” tendency, but this word has staying power. The distinction here is that an eyesore is–very clearly–a physical feature. It’s illogical to describe a human being as an eyesore but to describe an opponent’s dwelling or their tie as an “eyesore” is going to be effective. Other insults here, like elitist or egghead, don’t really work. “Egoist/egomaniac” works great once in a blue moon, though.
F – Fraud
This is a golden insult. Calling someone a fraud is not just an affront to their personality and character, it is damaging to one’s livelihood and one’s very existence. Back at the old office, I used to ask people to get documents from the printer for me. I used to print out pages that just said “Fraud” or “Fraud Alert.”
Fraud is an insult that puts someone in their place. It’s widely applicable. I know street dudes who engage in fraud. I know millionaires who may have dabbled in fraudulent activities. You can be a fraud to a felonious extent or just a small-time fraud, but it’s a label you can’t shake. You can be a literal criminal, or you can simply be a fake, an imposter. This is one of the most versatile and powerful insults that people will use in the 20s.
There are some honorable mentions here: fatso, fool, flamer, freak, fruit/fruitcake, and fake among them. But none are remotely close to fraud.
G – Goof / Goofball
Goof is a more lighthearted, temporary insult. You can goof around for a little bit and you can rejoin society whenever you please. Goof can even be a term of endearment for someone who is just a little silly but loveable. A goof isn’t an outcast, and goofs tend to be likable, personable folks.
In the G category, we’ve also got goober, goblin, “genius” (sarcastic), and guy. I don’t really like how goober or goblin sounds, genius reminds me of schoolyard namecalling, but referring to someone as “guy” can really cut their ego down while being discreet.
H – Harlequin
Like playing Exodia in the Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game, Harlequin is a hard insult to pull off. Three-syllable insults are not feasible when speaking, and the meaning is going to be lost on a lot of people. Still, in the right setting, it can be used. A harlequin is just a species of clown.
My confidence in this word is pretty low. I think that hack, hag, hoax, and hobbyist all are viable alternatives.
I – Imbecile
Back in the day, words like imbecile, idiot, moron, and others actually were medical definitions used to describe different degrees of mental incapabilities. Imbecile is three syllables but it rolls off the tongue. An imbecile is slightly above the idiot IQ range, which may explain why this insult has always felt more powerful to me.
Idiot is passable, as is ingrate. I use ignoramus quite a bit.
J – Joker / Joke
At this point, the clown motif is getting a bit tired, but a joker is yet another distinct image of someone who can’t be taken seriously. A joker is someone whose purpose is your amusement. A joker is someone who is discarded from the deck as soon as you take the cards out of the packaging.
Of course, you also have “jester” which I don’t find as versatile. Dropping the r and calling someone a joke is way more insulting than joker, and some mean kids at my high school used this in a way that I revere.
K – Kook
Not much to work with here. A kook to me is a more eccentric, more permanent brand of goof. Knave is a passable alternative if you are trying to keep things archaic.
L – Loser
A loser is someone who hasn’t won. Perhaps one of the most essential insults–the concept of loss bolsters many of our most celebrated put-downs. Lunatic / loon are suitable replacements that don’t get used often enough.
Borrowing from rap usage, “lame” and “lame-o” actually can be nouns, and I use them occasionally.
M – Moron
Moron is a beautiful insult. There’s something about the way the word is formed that appeals to me. It’s a shame that it is one letter away from Mormon, because I do use “moron” to remember that “Mormon” has two o’s in it. It’s an effective insult to vocalize meaning that there are many variations of these five letters, and that’s to say nothing of the game-ending adjective moronic.
N – Nuisance
This is going to be regarded as a controversial pick. The reason I like nuisance is that it’s commonly used to describe things like rodents, large parties, and honda civics with illegal exhaust systems. When you describe a person as a nuisance–to their face–it’s one of the clearest examples of when a carefully-selected insult wins out over “fucking asshole” or something.
You are a nuisance. Your line of questioning is a nuisance. This has been a nuisance. Man, it just bites! This is a medical-grade insult that you should only use with a prescription.
Also, we have nut and its derivatives, nincompoop, ne’er-do-well, normie–nothing else really works.
O – Oddball
An oddball is someone who is strange but especially in social settings. I know a lot of oddballs so I have to be careful when using the term in mixed company.
P – Prowler / Predator / Pedo
Elon’s famous “Pedo” tweet from 2018 is still a part of our culture’s subconscious. Just because of how slippery a slope this is, I would never, ever use this word in an open forum. I would instead use one of the less extreme variations, prowler or predator. These words communicate exactly what you’re trying to communicate when calling someone a “pedophile”–that they are a basement-dwelling creep.
You also have the noun “parasite” which was cool at one time but has gotten overused in today’s political climate.
Q – Quack
Quack feels old-timey yet being a quack or having quack ideas is still a mark of shame, if not fraudulence. A quack is a fraud who is often in the public eye or attempting to appeal to a wide audience for motivation that may be deeper than financial gain.
R – Rascal
In 2020, you can’t use the original r-word anymore, and I think that’s fine. But can we pretend to backfill it will rascal? Rapscallion? Rogue? Rudeboy? No, not really. There isn’t a fitting R-word.
S – Simpleton
The letter S has no clear winner.
You’ve also got snake, slime/slimeball, sissy, slacker, sleazeball, sycophant, shmuck, skunk, and many others. So many creative insults to choose from. I like simpleton because, at its essence, calling someone “simple” is surprisingly offensive. Its connotation is markedly different than that, actually referring to a person who is gullible and incapable of thinking critically.
T – Tramp
The true meaning of tramp has been lost due to the prevalence of the early-aughts phenomenon known as the tramp stamp. It’s very hard to separate this insult from the image of every person you’ve known who has had a tramp stamp. There should be way more choices for T, but the stamps happened so long ago that the word can potentially be taken back to its original meaning of a beggar or vagabond.
U – Ulcer
An ulcer is a painful, grotesque growth usually reserved for the medical space, but you can toss it out as an insult once in a while. It’s a raw statement that can sound absurd, but what else do we really have to work with here?
V – Vassal
A vassal is a subjugated person. Will probably go over the heads of most, but there’s no point in using villain or other V-words.
W – Wacko / Whacko
A wacko is often a conspiracy-theory-peddling, neurotic, homebody type. Seeing a wacko in person is like seeing a rare bird. It’s worth rubbernecking and pointing it out to your children when you’re driving a car. The term itself sounds like a different species–the wacko. This isn’t a general use term like clown. You just know a wacko when you see one or hear one.
Honorable mention to wimp, wuss, weirdo, and weakling.
X – Xenophobe
I actually don’t like this one because I feel it has political connotations. Uttered in a more intellectual sense, the word can be effective. But, really, there aren’t many choices for X.
Y – Yokel
A yokel is like a “townie” except less dignified. A “redneck” with a deeper cleft but features that are otherwise less telling until you speak to them. I’ve read a lot of books and I’ve never seen the insult used effectively and I hope to one day do it justice. It is unfortunate that “yuppie” also starts with a Y, because I find it hard to think of one without thinking of the other, to the point that they are antonyms in my mind.
Z – Zealot
Calling someone a zealot is highly effective, especially if you are insulting someone’s religious proselytizing.