I've been interested in comebacks and retorts for more than forty years. I'm not absolutely certain, but the first great repartee story I recall hearing came when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Dakota in the 1960s. Told by one of my psychology professors, it was the classic tale about Winston Churchill and Lady Astor. Nancy Astor, you will recall, was an American socialite who married a wealthy Englishman, and then used her marriage as a springboard into the top tier of English society (she holds the distinction of being the first woman to take a seat in Parliament). At a 1912 dinner party, Lady Astor became annoyed at an inebriated Churchill, who was pontificating on some topic. Reaching the end of her patience, she blurted out, "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee." Churchill famously replied:
Nancy if you were my wife, I'd drink it.
Stories about swift and witty replies have been told for many centuries, and some wonderful stories go way back into antiquity. One of my favorites was told by the Greek writer Plutarch in Parallel Lives, a book he wrote in the first century A.D. One charming story involved a Greek nobleman named Antigonus. One day, after learning that his adult son Demetrius was ill, Antigonus decided to pay a home visit. Arriving at the front door of his son's house, the concerned father ran head-on into a beautiful young woman, who brushed quickly by as she was leaving. Slightly puzzled, Antigonus went straight to his son's bedroom. As he placed his hand on his son's forehead, he asked, "How are you feeling?" The son looked up weakly and said in a soft voice, "The fever has just left me, I think." Antigonus replied knowingly:
Yes, I know. I met it going out the door.
Happily, clever replies are not a thing of the past. Indeed, clever new examples are being documented every day—some of them coming from the most famous names of our time. A few years ago, Jennifer Lopez was asked what she got on her SATs. She cleverly dodged the question and earned the admiration of all within earshot when she answered:
These anecdotes are perfect examples of repartee, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines this way:
1. A ready, witty, or smart reply; a quick and clever retort.
2. Sharpness or wit in sudden reply; such replies collectively; the practice or faculty of uttering them.
Repartee stories pay homage to those rare individuals who, often under duress, are able to keep their heads and deliver a swift and witty reply. Most of us admire wit under pressure because we don't fare nearly so well in such pressure-filled situations. Many of us stammer or get tongue-tied and, if we do think of a clever response, it comes to mind long after the moment it was needed. This phenomenon, called "staircase wit," comes from the French expression esprit de l'escalier, and is examined in more detail in the "Key Terms and Concepts" section.
The word repartee often conjures up an interaction marked by the quick exchange of clever remarks. And when it comes to repartee, nobody did it better than the members of that legendary collection of wits known as The Algonquin Round Table (a chapter of my book is devoted to "Algonquin Round Table Wit"). For many decades, a delightful story has been told about one member of the group, the playwright Marc Connelly. One evening, Connelly was dining with friends when another member of the group snuck up from behind, placed his hands on top of Connelly's bald head, and said to the amusement of the other guests, "Marc, your head feels as smooth as my wife's ass." Connelly raised his hands to his head, began rubbing his own scalp, and with a wry smile, said:
So it does, so it does.
The language of repartee contains many fascinating terms and expressions, some very well known and some virtually unknown, even in highly literate circles.
The dictionary defines ad-lib as "to improvise and deliver extemporaneously." Ad-lib is a shortened version of the Latin expression ad libitum (ADD LIB-uh-tum), which means "At the discretion of the performer." Throughout theatrical and stage history, ad libitum has been used as a stage direction for performers, telling them to use their discretion to alter or even omit a part of what was planned. In the Jazz Age, the full expression was shortened to ad-lib to indicate a musical improvisation or an impromptu line delivered by an actor. In recent years, the meaning of ad-lib has been extended to include almost any kind of spontaneous remark, especially a clever and witty one.
One of the most famous ad-libs in theatrical history came from the great Czechoslovakian tenor Leo Slezak. A century ago, Slezak was a huge star in the world of opera. One night, while playing the title role in Wagner's opera Lohengrin, he ran into an unexpected problem. At the end of the opera, a swan appears at the back of the stage, drawing a boat that is to return Lohengrin to his place with the Knights of the Holy Grail. This particular night, however, a stagehand erred and sent the swan boat off prematurely. It was the end of the opera, but there stood Slezak, watching the swan boat sail off without him. It was an awkward moment for the performers on stage and members of the audience, who were familiar with the opera's famous ending. As people began to fidget in their seats, Slezak brought the house down when he turned to a singer next to him and ad-libbed:
What time is the next swan?
Over the centuries, people have invented thousands of stories about clever comebacks, and then attributed the witty replies to the famous people of their era. A term for stories like this is apocryphal (uh-POCK-ruh-FUHL), a word that derives from the world of biblical scholarship. Specifically, the Apocrypha refers to a number of texts written around the same time as many other Old Testament books, but which are not generally accepted as divinely inspired. In popular usage, apocryphal means "of dubious or questionable authenticity; invented."
The inventors of many apocryphal stories have dreamed up a great reply on their own and then concocted a story—often one involving a famous figure—to give their creation an air of verisimilitude (another great term, meaning "an appearance of being true"). A famous example is a story involving the famous American lexicographer, Noah Webster. According to the tale, Webster was once engaged in some hanky-panky with the chambermaid when his wife opened the door to his study and found the couple in a compromising position. "Noah! I'm surprised!" she exclaimed. Webster, a stickler for the proper use of words, was said to have replied:
No, my dear. I am surprised. You are astonished.
While the ability to forge clever replies has always been useful in dealing with adversaries and opponents, it has proved invaluable in dealing with friends—especially when friends engage in the time-honored tradition of expressing their affection in a form of ritualized insult behavior. There are many words for this phenomenon: banter, razzing, kidding, jesting, ribbing, raillery, roasting, busting chops, and, of course, busting balls. Another word to describe this intriguing form of human interaction is badinage (BAD-uh-nazh), which the OED defines as "Light trifling raillery or humorous banter."
The word derives from the French badin, meaning "joker," and the phenomenon shows up mainly in the good-natured teasing and playful banter that people—especially men—engage in with one another. The word, which first appears in English in 1658, shows up in an intriguing passage in Disraeli's 1880 novel Endymion: "Men destined to the highest places should beware of badinage."
While badinage is not a particularly well-known word, the phenomenon is very common—showing up in locker rooms, work groups, executive teams, and family groups. I recall an episode of Frasier in 1997 in which Niles, with his pet parrot on his shoulder, greets his brother at the door. When Frasier says, "Good evening Niles. Or should I say, 'avast ye, matey!'" Niles brushes aside the remark by saying, "I don't have time for your badinage, Frasier." Surprised at hearing the word used in a TV sitcom, I recall saying to my wife Katherine, "Honey, there are twenty million people watching this program tonight and, besides me, only a handful of people probably know what he just said."
A classic badinage anecdote has been told for more than a century about Hermann Adler, the chief rabbi of London, and Herbert Vaughan, the Roman Catholic Cardinal and Archbishop of Westminster. At an official luncheon one day, Vaughan looked over at his Jewish colleague and said, "Dr. Adler, when may I have the pleasure of helping you to a slice of this most excellent ham?" Guests at the luncheon, aware of the Jewish prohibition about eating pork, were startled at what seemed like a lapse of sensitivity. Adler knew exactly what his colleague was up to, however, and brought gales of laughter to the relieved guests when he replied:
How about at Your Eminence's wedding?
The history of repartee has seen many replies that have demolished adversaries. The formal word for a great reply that defeats—or deflates—an opponent is retort, which the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines this way:
A sharp or incisive reply, especially one by which the first speaker's statement or argument is in some way turned against himself.
The word retort, which first appears in English in 1557, derives from the Latin word retortus, meaning "to turn back." And this, of course, is exactly what a perfectly-executed retort does—it turns back a personal attack, transforming a momentary threat into a personal triumph.
To use a boxing analogy, a retort is a verbal counter-punch against someone who has struck the first blow. A classic example occurs in an anecdote involving the writer Edna Ferber, who was fond of wearing tailored suits well before they became fashionable. One day, she arrived at the Algonquin Hotel wearing a suit that was very similar to one that the English actor Noël Coward was wearing. Ferber and Coward were friends (she once described him as her favorite theater companion) and Coward saw an opportunity to engage in a bit of playful badinage with one of his favorite people. Carefully looking her over, he observed, "Edna, you look almost like a man." Ferber looked Coward over in a similar manner and turned his very words against him with a classic retort:
So do you.