Friday, August 11, 2017


One of the glories of language is the witty rejoinder, riposte or retort. It is the answer in a quick, witty or caustic response (The Heritage Dictionary) to someone’s comment or verbal assault; a severe, incisive or witty reply (The Random House Dictionary), especially one that counters a first speaker’s statement, argument, etc.

Probably the most famous retort in the English language is that of John Wilkes to the Earl of Sandwich’s, “’pon my honor, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die on the gallows or of the pox.” To which Wilkes, “That must depend , my Lord, upon whether I first embrace one of your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.” The additional cleverness here is the plural “mistresses,” which not only rhythmically balances the plural “principles,” but also establishes the hapless nobleman as not only a crook but also a philanderer.  And the repeated “my Lord,” with its seeming respectfulness, adds a further bit of mockery. Perhaps it offers some consolation to  the lord that the sandwich was named for him.

Barely less famous, and certainly no less witty, is Bernard Shaw’s remark at the curtain on the premiere of his “Arms and the Man .” Amid tumultuous applause, one angry voice booed from the balcony. Said Shaw, “My dear fellow, I quite agree with you, but what are we two against so many?” Here again, the chumminess of the opening makes the final effect that much more stinging.

I have often quoted my probably favorite retort before, but it’s still irresistible. The aristocratic Margot Asquith was lunching with the Hollywood star Jean Harlow, who kept calling her Margott, eliciting from the lady, “No, no, Jean. The T in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.” Margot Asquith was quite a wit, as in “Lloyd George could not see a belt without hitting below it.” Or: “Lord Birkenhead is very clever, but sometimes his brains go to his head.” But then let’s not forget Dorothy Parker’s
response to one of her books, “The affair between Margot Asquith and Margot Asquith will live as one of the prettiest love stories in all literature.”           

The great Hilaire Belloc gave his retort in verse to another lord. “Last night I heard Godolphin say/ He never gave himself away./ Come now, Godolphin, scion of kings,/ Be generous in little things.” That benefits from the leisureliness of a quatrain. Another effective retort draws from its opposite, concision. Take the actor Lucien Guitry (father of the endlessly witty Sacha) answering a bore who tried to defend himself by “I only speak as I think,” with ”Yes, but much more often.”

As you might expect, there are many masterly retorts from Oscar Wilde. Thus there was the homely Frenchwoman who sought to combat unsightlinss by celebrity. So she addressed Wilde with her standard, “Am I not the ugliest woman in France?’ To which he replied with a bow and “In the world, Madame, in the world.” Courtesy, or its semblance, always cuts deeper. In Wilde’s French, it was even more terse: “Du monde, Madame, du monde.”

You can even respond with both verse and brevity as in what I like to think was a spontaneous response to someone from the otherwise unknown William Norman Ewer, “How odd/ Of God,/ To choose,/ The Jews.” If eight syllables are insufficient retort to immortalize their author, this was, at any rate, a nice try.

The retort may also be to an object, as it was from the dying Oscar Wilde in a cheap Paris hotel: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Were there ever more aesthetic dying words, confirming Wilde as an aesthete to the last with a kind of immortal hyperbole.

The music world too offers prize retorts, even if they were not by what another person provoked, but as a riposte to a widely held opinion. Thus about Wagner, from Mark Twain: “Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds.” Or this, from a British columnist, Beachcomber, double-edged no less: “Wagner was the Puccini of music.” That is concise enough, but sometimes a single word will do. As when an American avantguardist made Hindemith listem to his new work for half an hour. “Is this your last work,” Hindemith inquired. “No” replied the American. To which Hindemith: “Pity.”

Sometimes the retort can be insulting, but forgivable for its wit. So when Meyerbeer complained to Rossini at a chance meeting of having aches all over and added “I don’t know what to do,” Rossini, knowing that Meyerbeer was coming from a rehearsal of his [Meyerbeer’s] music, amiably responded, “I know what it is: you listen too much to yourself.” Retorts have a way of sounding better in French. Thus when a woman neighbor of Alfred Jarry’s exclaimed to Jarry, who enjoyed shooting off his gun skyward in his adjoining garden, “For heaven’s sake, Monsieur Jarry, you’re going to kill our children,” he retorted, “Qu’a cela ne tienne, Madame, nous vous en fairons d’autres.” He retorted, which sounds more powerful than in English,”Don’t let it matter, madame, we’ll make you some others.”

There is one magnificent putdown that, though written, I would like to think of as having first come in a conversation. It’s from the formidable Karl Kraus: “Psychoanalysis is the mental illness for which it considers itself the therapy.”
Kraus was quite capable of a retort to the entire female sex: “A woman is, occasionally, quite a serviceable substitute for masturbation. It takes a lot of imagination, though.” How much stronger I this made by that “occasionally.”

And now, in all immodesty, a couple of my own retorts. On the David Frost Show, Jacqueline Susann was defending a trashy novel. I had mentioned to Rex Reed, a fellow guest seated beside me, that I had read only forty pages of it. Reed was shocked: “How could one criticize a novel of which one had read only forty pages?” I answered: “How many spoonfuls of a soup must you ingest before you can tell that it is rancid ?” On another TV program, I was a guest along with a trendy art gallery owner, a husband of Gloria Vanderbilt’s, and Germaine Greer. I had become silent for quite a while and the host, David Suskind, asked why? I answered, “I have often been out of my depth, but this is the first time I have been out of my shallowness.”

But to conclude with the master, Oscar Wilde, who was once asked by a formerly prizewinning poetaster (Alfred Austin, I believe) what to do now about “the conspiracy of silence” surrounding him. “Join it,” Oscar replied. How simple yet powerful a retort can be.


  1. “Herman Mankiewicz was an alcoholic. He once famously reassured his hostess at a formal dinner in her Hollywood home, after he had vomited all over her beautiful white tablecloth, not to be concerned because ‘the white wine came up with the fish.’ “

  2. The funniest part of Wilde's retort to the ugly woman was his "bow". That little tidbit adds the visual needed to make it funny. Nice!

  3. This got me to looking up other retorts. Two by Groucho Marx:

    "I never forget a face, but in your case I'll make an exception."

    Groucho to a contestant:

    "Why so many kids?"
    "Well, Groucho, I love my wife"
    "I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while."

    Here's Edna Ferber vs Noel Coward

    Coward: You look almost like a man.
    Ferber: So do you.

    (We could do this all day)

  4. In response to 'How odd of God to choose the Jews' someone (I don't know who) said:'Not odd of God/Goyim annoyim.'

  5. Jazz archivist Stanley Crow rounded up some good ones in his book Jazz Anecdotes. One told of an exasperatingly untalented drummer sitting in on a club date with a headliner. At the end, the drummer attempted to make small talk. "So when was the last time we played together?" "Tonight," said the headliner.

  6. Winston Churchill recounted several ripostes from F. E. Smith in his inter-war book Great Contemporaries:

    Judge Willis: What do you suppose I am on the Bench for, Mr Smith?
    F E Smith: It is not for me, Your Honour, to attempt to fathom the inscrutable
    workings of Providence.
    Judge: I am no wiser now than when you began summing up.
    F E Smith: Possibly not My Lord; but better informed. - F. E. Smith (1872
    &endash; 1930)

    Judge Willis tried to think of a decisive retort. At last it arrived.'Mr. Smith, have you ever heard of a saying by Bacon--the great Bacon--that youth and discretion are ill-wedded companions?'
    'Yes, I have,' came the instant repartee. 'And have you ever heard of a saying of Bacon--the great Bacon--that a much-talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal?'
    'You are extremely offensive, young man,' exclaimed the judge.
    'As a matter of fact,' said Smith, 'we both are; but I am trying to be, and you can't help it.'

    Such a dialogue would be held brilliant in a carefully-written play, but that these successive rejoinders, each more smashing than the former, should have leapt into being upon the spur of the moment is astounding. ...
    -- Winston Churchill, 'F. E. First Earl of Birkenhead', in _Great Contemporaries_, 1937

    On another occasion, in the crowing period of his life, he was addressing a meeting in his old constituency. He said at one point: 'And now I shall tell you exactly what the Government has done for all of you.'
    'Nothing!' shouted a woman in the gallery.
    'My dear lady', said Lord Birkenhead, 'the light in this hall is so dim as to prevent a clear sight of your undoubted charms, so that I am unable to say with certainty whether you are a virgin, a widow, or a matron, but in any case I will guarantee to prove that you are wrong. If you are a virgin flapper, we have given you the vote; if you are a wife, we have increased employment and
    reduced the cost of living; if you are a widow, we have given you a pension--and if you are none of these, but are foolish enough to be a tea drinker, we have reduced the tax on sugar.-- Winston Churchill, 'F. E. First
    Earl of Birkenhead', in_Great Contemporaries_, 1937

  7. Re: Thus about Wagner, from Mark Twain: “Wagner’s music is not as bad as it sounds.”

    In "Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain", Justin Kaplan offered these Twain Wagner zingers:
    ---He preferred Wagner in pantomime. (p 280)
    ---The singing in Lohengrin reminded him of the time the orphan asylum burned down." (p 312)

  8. Wit way did they go?

    The best retorts are in my head,
    Beginning with "I should have said..."
    In leading questions I am versed,
    Towards witticisms I've rehearsed.

  9. From memory: Noel Coward when asked how he came to be known as "The Master". Coward: "It started as a joke then became real.". Also when being bothered by a child said something about giving him "A chocolate covered grenade".

  10. Someone said to W. C. Fields "You're drunk", to which Fields replied "And you're an idiot, but tomorrow I'll be sober and you'll still be an idiot."

  11. John, I'm just catching up with this piece, which I very much enjoyed. Many years ago, when my friend Chris and I were in high school, we left a Sunday mass right after communion. The parish's new cleric, a real firebrand, was in the back of the church just waiting for the chance to confront an infidel. "If you had tickets to a broadway show would you leave before it was over?" he asked. Chris replied, "If I saw it 5,000 times I would." Hope you are well.

  12. Oh, my. Allow me to wipe a tear from my eye.

    Mark Twain, who is among the prodigiously misattributed, is not the source of the quip about Wagner's music being better than it sounds; American journalist Edgar Wilson Nye weighed in with that one.

    Overlooked is Dorothy Parker's riposte to the matron (Clare Boothe Luce?) who held open a door for Parker while saying, "Age before beauty." Parker: "Pearls before swine."

    Another (possible) Wilde: When the Marquess of Queensberry thrust a bouquet of rotting flowering vegetables at Wilde as a sardonic "gift", Wilde said, "When I smell them, I'll think of you"

    Oh, I say..touché!

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  14. I'm not sure whether it's sad or infuriating that you pat yourself on the back for stealing a line from George Bernard Shaw. I do know, however, that I'm not surprised. Patting yourself on the back is one thing at which you've always excelled.