Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History's Great Wits and Wordsmiths

Viva la Repartee: Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History's Great Wits and Wordsmiths

by Mardy Grothe


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For most of us, that perfect retort or witty reply often escapes us when we need it most, only to come to mind with perfect clarity when it's too late to be useful. The twentieth-century writer Heywood Broun described this all-too-common phenomenon when he wrote "Repartee is what we wish we'd said."

In Viva la Repartee, Dr. Mardy Grothe, author of Oxymoronica, has lovingly assembled a collection of masterfully composed — and perfectly timed — replies that have turned the tables on opponents and adversaries. This delightful volume is a celebration of the most impressive retorts, ripostes, rejoinders, comebacks, quips, ad-libs, bon mots, off-the-cuff comments, wisecracks, and other clever remarks ever to come out of the mouths — and from the pens — of people throughout history. Touching on all areas of human endeavor, including politics, the arts, literature, sports, relationships, and even the risqué, the book features contributions from Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Mae West, Groucho Marx, Winston Churchill, Dolly Parton, and scores more.

As entertaining as it is intellectually enriching, Viva la Repartee is sure to capture the attention of language lovers and is the perfect antidote for anyone who's ever thought I wish I'd said that!

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060789480
Publisher: HarperCollins US
Publication date: 11/01/2005
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 745,795
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 7.12(h) x 1.01(d)

About the Author

 Dr. Mardy Grothe is a retired psychologist, management consultant, and platform speaker; the author of six books on words and language; the creator of Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations; and one of America’s most beloved quotation anthologists. He lives in Southern Pines, North Carolina, with his wife, Katherine Robinson.

Read an Excerpt

Viva la Repartee

Clever Comebacks and Witty Retorts from History's Great Wits and Wordsmiths
By Mardy Grothe

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Mardy Grothe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060789484

Chapter One

Classic retorts, ripostes, & rejoinders

After the opening performance of Arms and the Man in London in 1894, playwright George Bernard Shaw joined the actors on stage to acknowledge a rousing, appreciative ovation. Amidst the sustained applause, a solitary voice cried out: "Boo! Boo!" Shaw looked in the direction of the voice and said:

I quite agree with you, my friend,
but what can we two do against
a whole houseful of the opposite opinion?

Shaw's reply enthralled the audience and helped cement his reputation as a great wit. One of the most talented playwrights of all time, he proved in that moment that he was as skilled in the art of extemporaneous repartee as he was at the craft of witty dialogue for the characters in his plays.

A similar story is told about the reception Oscar Wilde received after one of his plays. After an extended period of warm applause, during which the author was presented with a number of floral bouquets from admiring fans, one disgruntled person in the audience threw a rotten cabbage at the playwright. Wilde simply leaned over, picked up the foul-smelling vegetable, and coolly replied:

Thank you, my dear fellow.
Every time I smell it,
I shall be reminded of you.

Both stories illustrate a familiar phenomenon. Someone hurls an insult or makes a critical remark. In that moment, the recipient of the attack is placed in what sociologists call a "one-down" position. Onlookers to such an interaction often describe a slight feeling of apprehension, as they try to imagine how the drama will unfold. Sometimes, the person being attacked descends to the level of the aggressor, goes on a counterattack, and everything goes downhill. Every now and then, though, the targets are able to come up with a few clever words that turn the tables on their opponents. Replies like this are called retorts, as we saw that term defined in the Introduction:

A sharp or incisive reply, especially one by which the first speaker's
statement or argument is in some way turned against himself.

In the language of repartee, though, the Shaw and Wilde comebacks could also be described by two other words: riposte and rejoinder.

The OED defines riposte (pronounced ruh-POST) this way: "To reply or to retaliate; to answer." The word comes from the Italian risposta, meaning "to answer, reply." The term was originally used in the sport of fencing, where it described a quick retaliatory thrust that is given after parrying an opponent's lunge. In the mid-1800s, the word was extended to the arena of human interaction, where it began to be used to describe an effective verbal reply. Today riposte is virtually synonymous with retort, both words describing a quick and sharp response to an insult or attack. Historically used mainly as a noun, in recent years it has also begun to be used as a verb, "to deliver a riposte" (as in "He riposted.").

Rejoinder is another term that has become virtually synonymous with retort and riposte. The best current definition appears in the Oxford American Dictionary (OAD), which says, "Something said in answer or retort." The word comes from a fifteenth-century French legal term, rejoindre, meaning "to answer to a legal charge." A few centuries ago, the word became a part of popular usage when it began to be used to describe a sharp and quick reply. While rejoinder is a commonly used noun, the verb rejoin (meaning "to say in reply") is rarely used. When people deliver a rejoinder, though, it is technically correct to say that they rejoined, and not that they rejoindered.

Admiring stories about great retorts have been told from the very beginning of civilization. In the fifth century B.C., the aging Greek leader Pericles was engaged in a heated debate with his nephew Alcibiades over how Athens should be governed. The frustrated Pericles finally played the Age Card. "When I was your age, Alcibiades," he charged condescendingly, "I talked just the way you are now talking." Alcibiades' reply stands as a model for all young people who've been similarly put down by a smug elder:

If only I had known you, Pericles,
when you were at your best.

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-uhnazh), 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 appeared in English in 1658, shows up in an intriguing passage in Benjamin 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. We saw an example in the previous chapter when Marc Connelly's friend ribbed him about his bald head. I also 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." 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 maybe only a handful of people know what he just said."


Excerpted from Viva la Repartee by Mardy Grothe Copyright © 2005 by Mardy Grothe.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Don Hauptman

“Viva La Repartee is a spectacular feast of the most brilliant retorts and wittiest zingers ever delivered.”

Anu Garg

“If words could be weapons, this book is a collection of weapons of mass delectation.”

Erin McKean

“It’s a must for anyone who loves a quick word from a quick wit.”

Richard Lederer

“Mardy Grothe’s exquisite collection of retorts, ripostes, and rebuffs celebrates language in its most clever, precise, and hilarious form.”

Robert Byrne

“A glittering display of comebacks and put-downs from the funniest people on earth.”

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