Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I belong to the tribe endowed with what my friend Manimury refers to as ‘staircase wit’.

Picture this: the boss has just administered you a severe dressing down. Without a murmur, you stomach all that is said. You slowly emerge out of the corner office with downcast eyes. As you walk down the staircase to your table, like a revelation comes the appropriate, if mildly insubordinate, response that you ought to have given to the boss. (Maybe you may even tell your colleague or wife that you did, in fact, mouth those words.) That is staircase wit.

It always happens to me. Somehow, at the material time, all the right words and expressions give me a miss but a little later, they come to me, with a vengeance, as it were. And I am not talking of the expletives and invectives of the Nixon variety which we, in the four-letter age, use when we wish to retort or rebuke. The crude, even the lewd, dominates our response. We tend to swear and curse. If the speaker is not a prisoner of the Punjabi blasphemy, F-word trips off our tongues with frightening fluency. Sadly, we’ve bid goodbye to the use of wit and repartee.

How different was the world of our forebears! The English — and those who enjoy imitating them — delight in witty ways of putting the rapier in and giving it a turn ever so very lightly. They don’t bludgeon but they delicately carve and slice. Consider the following put-downs. They make their point with great effect, yet it is difficult to be offended by them. (I am not certain if all of them are factual. That some of them may be apocryphal does not taken away from their charm; on the contrary, one pays a silent tribute to the inventive mind the fashioned the comeback.

“He has all the virtues I dislike but none of the vices I admire” (Churchill)
“He has no enemies but is intensely disliked by his friends” (Wilde)
“He had delusions of adequacy” (Walter Kerr)

Some of them start off deceptively with a what looks like compliment, and it takes a while to realize that it is left-handed. Consider these:

"He inherited some good instincts from his Quaker forebears, but by diligent hard work, he overcame them." (James Reston about Richard Nixon)
“He is a self-made man and worships his creator.” (John Bright)
“A modest little person with much to be modest about” (Churchill about Attlee)
“Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go” (Wilde)
"Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it." (Moses Hadas)
"I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it." (Mark Twain)
“He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts … for support rather than illumination” (Andrew Lang)

And some are unambiguously humiliating:

"They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge." (Thomas Brackett Reed)
“Why do you sit there looking like an envelope without an address on it?” (Mark Twain)
“He’s not only dull, he’s the cause of dullness in others” (Samuel Johnson)
“In order to avoid being called a flirt she always yields easily” (Talleyrand)

It’s not just authors or politicians who have a way with words. Occasionally even Hollywood celebrities can be remarkably witty. Billy Wilder dismissed an unkind music with, “He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.” Robert Redford once said of a fellow actor: “He has the attention span of a lightning bolt.” And Mae West of a suitor who was less than ardent: “His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork.” My favourite, however, is Groucho Marx's legendary comeback to a man who said he had ten children because he loved his wife: "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every now and then".

In my college days, the audience at debates applaud repartees far more than weighty and serious argument. The better debater always had a quiver full of arrows aimed at his opponents. A regular used to be: “He’s a well-balanced man with a chip on both shoulders”. Another was this comparison: “The difference between Mr. X and me is a question of mind over matter. I don’t mind and he doesn’t matter.”

Stories featuring Winston Churchill and Lady Astor who seem to have been habitual sparring partners are indeed numerous and though almost a century has passed, they are still as popular as they are delightful. I cannot resist the temptation to quote these classic exchanges though I am sure you would have heard them.

Once, when a tipsy Winston Churchill stumbled down the stairs of the House of Commons, he fell in front of a disapproving Lady Astor. “Winston”, she reprimanded, “you’re drunk”. “And you’re ugly”, he shot back. Then, rising to his feet, he added: “But tomorrow I’ll be sober.”

At a dinner where Lady Astor was pouring coffee, she handed a cup to Winston Churchill with the words “If you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee”. Accepting, he replied “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”

But it wasn’t just Winston Churchill and Lady Astor who used their wit to keep the other in his or her place. Gladstone and Disraeli did the same in the 19th century. Gladstone, who was more proper and less flamboyant, was frequently at odds with Disraeli. “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.” “That depends, Sir”, Disraeli responded with a flourish, “on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

I suspect Disraeli usually got the better of their exchanges but Gladstone’s description of him has achieved a certain rhetorical immortality. He called him “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity”.

Sadly, the art of well-crafted repartee seems to be dying a slow death.