November 4, 2023

Making Fun: Insults and Humor in History and Contemporary Culture

Class Details

Making Fun: Insults and Humor in History and Contemporary Culture

People have mocked each another for as long as there has been language with which to do so. For example, at the beginning of Homer’s Iliad, the oldest epic from Ancient Greece, the warrior Achilles calls the king Agamemnon a “greedy dog-face,” among other things; the enraged king punishes Achilles, setting up Achilles’ eventual death. At the same time, insults can be incredibly funny and enjoyable — as in comic “roasts” from Comedy Central, the jolly wordplay of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or attacks against contemporary philosophy by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes. As a result, insults are difficult to pin down: any word or phrase may seem mocking or abusive to one person but neutral, funny, or even friendly to another. At the same time, apparent praise or even a compliment can be insulting if said in a specific way or at a particular time. A great deal depends on context.
In this course we will study the interplay between insults and humor, by comparing the ancient past and the contemporary present. Primary readings will draw from ancient Greek writers such as Homer, Aristophanes, and Demosthenes, and Romans such as Plautus, Catullus, and Seneca. We will pair these with real-life phenomena such as wall-graffiti (ancient and modern), personal letters, ancient curse tablets, modern film, music, and political speeches. This material will allow us to explore different sociological, anthropological, and linguistic models in order to understand insult and humor as key elements of human communication and even human nature.


  • Enrollment through your home campus; contact your local OSLEP campus coordinator for information
  • OSLEP provides all required reading materials at no additional cost-NO books to buy!
  • Housing and meals provided
  • In-person residential seminar
Start Date
November 4, 2023
End Date
November 8, 2023
University of Oklahoma
Course Credits
Application Deadline
September 20, 2023
Portrait of Hans Bork


Hans Bork, Ph.D.

Stanford University

Hans Bork is Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics at Stanford University. His primary interests include insult language and humor theory, as well as the comic theater of ancient Rome. Other interests include historical sociolinguistics, Indo-European historical linguistics, Latin poetry, and vernacular Latin.

Class Prep

Further Resources