Peninsula Views: The Other Side

Concentrated Wit, or the World in a Sentence


If, as the Bard informs, brevity is the soul of wit, what could be wittier than a one-liner?

President Calvin Coolidge was a typically taciturn Vermonter. Not for “Silent Cal” the word salads we’ve been served by presidents these days.

Once at a Washington, D.C., dinner party, the society matron seated next to the “Pride of Plymouth Notch” tried to pry more conversation out of him than his usual monosyllables. She goaded Coolidge, saying, “I made a bet with someone that I could get more than two words out of you.”

His retort was, “You lose.”

The one-word comeback is very rare.

“Are you underestimating me?”


Why are these short ripostes so appealing?

Besides the humor, no doubt it is the brevity. Long-windedness is the soul of boredom.

We admire the spontaneity of the perfect, quick comeback. Most of us see an opening for one in conversation, and then, dang it, can’t quite find the right words in the milliseconds available. When we think of the perfect line later, the French, who have a term for everything from baguette to rosé to ménage à trois, call this an esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit.

It’s just not fair the way witty people get to skip the stairs, and their quips are never too late.

Short, pithy comebacks have been popular since pith was invented in the Fertile Crescent or wherever a long time ago.

Plutarch tells the story of Diogenes, who was called a cynic, the word for dog since the Greeks didn’t see fit to use the perfectly good three-letter English word.
Diogenes lived on the street, like a stray mongrel. Apparently, he’d become an Athenian tourist attraction. Once, the flea-bitten, dumpster-diving, homeless philosopher was visited at his sidewalk address by The Most Important Man In The World.

“I am Alexander the Great.”

“I am Diogenes, the dog.”

“The dog?”

“I lick the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite fools.”

“What can I do for you?”

“Stop shading me. Get out of my sunlight.”

As in the days of Stalin, there were dangerous political jokes during the reign of Caesar Augustus. In one joke, a country fellow from the Roman equivalent of Shelton wanders into the imperial capital. There’s a buzz on the street because the yokel is a dead ringer for Caesar himself. Word reaches Augustus, who has his double brought before him.

The emperor commands, “Tell me, young man. Was your mother ever in Rome?”

“No,” replied the hick, “but my father was — often.” The story doesn’t say what happened to the smart aleck.

What we’ve learned to call a mic drop adds to the last-word effect of comebacks. The one-liner has a finality that is like few other things in this life.

Groucho, himself a divinity in the Pantheon of Wit, left a party saying, “I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.”

Mark Twain, another member of the One-Liner Hall of Fame, nailed the pause before the zinger with a surprise last word, “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.”

Winston Churchill was another titan of the last word.

Nancy Astor, exasperated with the no less ugly than cantankerous Churchill at a country house party, exclaimed in exasperation, “If I were your wife, I would put poison in your coffee!”

To which Churchill famously responded, “And if I were your husband, I would drink it.”

Unlike a Super Bowl, or a Marvel superhero movie, or the last number in pi, Groucho and Churchill had the last word.

There are sequels to comebacks, though.

The Internet Age offers dozens of websites that assemble lists of witty sayings, most beginning with a large, round number and a superlative, “The 100 Greatest…” Nothing new except for the medium: Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations has been full of one-liners since its first edition in 1855, and we’re on the 19th now. They naturally accumulate in endless lists.

There are entire books of short sayings. One of the best-known is La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims. The bracing effect of reading his book before going to sleep, absorbing misanthropy like “Old people are fond of giving good advice; it consoles them for no longer being capable of setting a bad example,” and, “In the adversity of even our best friends, we always find something not wholly displeasing,” is the equivalent of using hydrogen peroxide as a mouthwash. You are ready for bed, disinfected of naïve illusions, but with a lingering, bitter taste in your mouth. You thought you were going to bed, but were put in your place instead.

It may be a French thing. Pascal’s Pensée 646 is, “If all men knew what others say of them, there would not be four friends in the world.” I bet there aren’t any Optimist Clubs in Paris.

I prefer Dorothy Parker’s wit, and who doesn’t? It’s acid enough but smoothed by hilarious wordplay. Often, the joke is in the unexpected last word in the quip.

In case you forgot, Parker reminds us that, just as with one-liners, “brevity is the soul of lingerie.”

When challenged to use “horticulture” in a sentence, she offered, “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.”

In 18th century France, Joseph Joubert spent a lifetime polishing aphorisms that he kept in notebooks but never published. He was a perfectionist who tried “to put a whole book in a page, a whole page in a sentence, and that sentence in one word.”

A whole book in a word! Now that’s an ambition for anyone who’s ever tried to come up with a one-liner.

You’re probably thinking, what if the writer of this column had boiled the whole thing down to one entertaining sentence?

Dan Clouse is an award-winning columnist. He lives in Lakebay.