Recently, while driving to a restaurant just at rush hour, we witnessed a near-accident. The offending vehicles were blocking an intersection but had just managed to avoid collision, and the driver of one car was shouting from his rolled-down window–shouting words that it is a good thing my 90-year-old mother-in-law was too deaf to hear, I might add.
After scooting around to the shoulder and proceeding along our route, my son commented on the driver’s use of the epithet “douche canoe.” It’s one I was not familiar with. “What does that even mean?” I asked, unable to process it either literally or by metaphor; yet I grant there is something appealing about the phrase, for sound reasons (I am making a pun! I admit it!).
Poets tend to be enamored of the way language sounds, even those who “write for the page.” We can imagine the sounds, “see” them, as we write. Performative poems rely on sound and continue the ancient oral foundations of poetry in song and chant. Many American students encounter the Beowulf saga in high school; kenning appears on the curriculum, and it is the one aspect of the saga my students always seem to recall.
Dictionary.com says of “kenning”:
Poets deepened these modifiers, using kenning to evoke allusions to well-known myths, for example, or doing tricky wordplay such as puns and alliteration…or all of the above.
Moving away from kenning and into the general field of poetic wordplay, poets and others who are facile with language can move with ease to the sarcastic, the suggestive, and the downright vile (a classic example is Catullus–here’s a link to a biography from the Poetry Foundation that includes commentary on some of his well-known insult poems). A quick Google search on Shakespearean insults yields dozens of results from the bard of Avon. One of my favorite strings of poetic invective is from King Lear: “lily-liver’d, action-taking, whoreson, glass-gazing, superserviceable, finical rogue.” Note the alliteration and the meter. Touché.
Closer to “douche canoe” in terms of era is playing the dozens, exemplified for boxing fans through the boasts and challenges of Muhammed Ali–here, crowing over a bout with Sonny Liston:
“The crowd did not dream when they laid down their money
that they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
Elijah Wald has a scholarly book on the tradition of playing the dozens. These rhymes are intended to challenge, provoke, and amuse. The evolution into rap is easy to credit.
Despite the aural appeal of “douche canoe” with its long, repeated vowels, I doubt the phrase will enter my personal lexicon. It did remind me, however, of an alliterative insult I heard fairly frequently from my uncles when one of us kids was acting particularly balky:
“Don’t be such a horse’s hind end!”