Wit and the Art of Conversation

gilray conversation

As I was growing up, I became aware of people talking about how witty this book was, or that movie, or a famous person sitting in a famous cafe in Manhattan or Paris.   I began to read Jane Austen, and saw her references to wit. Then I saw references to how wittily she wrote about wit.

Sometimes people said funny, but mostly it was witty.

So what is wit?

Included among Webster’s definitions: The ability to make lively, clever remarks in a sharp, amusing way.

And again, in the old Collegiate version: Wit suggests the power to evoke laughter by remarks showing verbal felicity or ingenuity and swift perception especially of the incongruous.

Here’s Lord Chesterfield (who besides Gilly Williams was considered one of the wittiest people in the eighteenth century):

?Ready wit may create many admirers, but take my word for it, it makes few friends. It shines and dazzles like the noon-day sun, but, like that too, is very apt to scorch, and therefore is always feared…Never seek for wit; if it presents itself, well and good; but even in that case let your judgement interpose, and take care that it be not at the expense of anybody.

And again:

?If God gives you wit, which I am not sure that I wish you, unless he gives you at the same time an equal portion at least of judgement to keep it in good order, wear it like your sword in the scabbard, and do not brandish it to the terror of the whole company…Wit is so shining a quality that everybody admires it, most people aim at it, all people fear it, and few love it, unless in themselves.

duel with sabers

There is a reason wit is likened to swords, because it can be wielded as a weapon. Like fencing, it requires speed and the skill of instant assessment: the fencer assesses the opponent’s defense and offense, the wit assesses not just the target but the listeners as the fast exchange goes on.

The wit, like the duelist, lunges with the perfect skewer. The duelist must also exhibit style, that is, does not bludgeon the opponent but skewers with grace, otherwise it’s merely sarcasm.

What Chesterfield is also saying is that wit can be a form of bullying in certain kinds of social situations: who’s the alpha, does the alpha have a bunch of yes-people, men vs women claiming social space, people of different socio-economic and educational backgrounds who might not know all the references, but above all, ganging up on someone perceived as in the weaker position.

Bullying wit is exclusionary: the chuckle of the in-group at the expense of those who want to be in.

Wit in literature is not confined to cruelty at the expense of others, though there are plenty of examples of cruel wit that have endured. See quotations from the Algonquin Table lunches.

Some maintain that wit is the province of the upper class. I don’t think so. Upper class wit is the province of the upper class.

18th c conversation

Now, if the beholder admires what he or she acknowledges as the upper class, that is, something above one that one aspires to, then one emulates the manners of that group–and admires its wit. But wit exists in all groups.

Some have claimed that Jane Austen’s wit is reserved to the gentry and social ranks above, but I don’t think that was true even at her time; for one thing, the nobility didn’t come off well in any of her novels, and for another, her popularity has proved to range up and down social scales over the years.

A century ago, Kipling acknowledged that much in the story “The Janeites” about a bunch of soldiers battered by World War One; up at our end, Emma was updated cleverly, and wittily, into Clueless, which had broad appeal.

Wit can be used against those trying to climb the social ladder as well as at the expense of those who claim superiority or privilege. Wit can be exclusionary, or inclusive. In other words, wit can be a great leveler, and it is both admired and feared because it can be wielded without physical exertion yet the impact is often likened to a bomb as well as a sword. Or a fan. A couple hundred years ago, in social gatherings, women used wit as a weapon in a world in which pretty much all power, and the weight of the law, belonged to men.

It seems to me there are many types of wit.

There is punning repartee, but this is almost always verbal wit, topical in nature. It isn’t memorable, unless the context itself is memorable. Charlotte Bronte gives us an example of this type of wit in the company gathered at the Rochester home in Jane Eyre.

the code of the woosters

There is the benign wit of writers like P.G. Wodehouse, who at his most brilliant raised wit to an art.

In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth century acknowledged wit was almost always topical, thus the witty comment worked at the time, the place, and in the style of its delivery.

The Spectator acknowledged this type of wit in the entry for May 11, 1711: after commenting on how John Locke made distinctions between wit and judgment, the author tried to define true wit as a resemblance of ideas, and false wit as a resemblance of words. A pun was not wit—except in situations of “mixt wit” which seems to have depended on wordplay and context. It’s interesting that some poet named Cowley—thoroughly forgotten now—is lauded as the master of this type of wit, which Dryden (still read, if mostly in college texts) disdained.

This “mixt” kind of wit has been rarely written down, and except for a very few exceptions, most examples don’t wear well. Besides Cowley, the famous mid-eighteenth century man-about-town Gilly Williams was supposed to be the master at it. The examples of his wit that show up in contemporary letters aren’t all that funny now, but at the time he could crack up an entire room, and he was invited everywhere because no party would be dull if he were present.

Chesterfield was also known as a wit, but there was sharp psychological awareness shaping his style of wit, and behind that a deep and abiding desire for humanity to achieve real, and not superficial, civilization, which kept him from becoming a sarcastic bully—Johnson’s excoriation notwithstanding.


Wit with insight is entertaining and illuminating, especially when the point is made against the worthy target, instead of merely the weak. Oscar Wilde’s plays glitter with wit at the expense of the follies of his own society. A good many of his witty epigrams are predicated on shared assumptions about the differences between men and women. Some of those differences—one can be thankful—are no longer true, rendering one-time wit into mere curiosity. In more recent times, many hailed Stephen Colbert for his wit on TV, and Dave Barry in print.

Wit can be pointed but not perceived as cruel, depending on our partisanship. Mr. Darcy is drawn to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by her mesmerizing ability to combine wit and compassion. Her wit is ironic at the expense of the hypocrite, the pompous, the fool. Her compassion is expended fearlessly on behalf of the defensible: the honest, the steady, loyal, loving, kind.

Wit sparks off shared cultural assumptions and references–what the semioticians call signposts. In Austen’s day, the references included a heavy reliance on the classics—by which I mean Greek and Latin writers—which makes them seem impossibly erudite to modern readers. Not so at the time; all but the most superficial educational systems (and Austen satirized those, too) included this reading, and so Virgil and Aristotle were as familiar then as references to TV show and video games and famous comics are to us now.

Some say that witty conversation is dead—that the art of conversation is gone. Many critics point to films in which characters talk little, but get right to the action. Including couples we are supposed to believe are falling in love. They don’t talk, exchange ideas. They fall in lust with each other’s hot bodies, screen-time bustling us rapidly from first glance to the bedroom with a minimum of chatter. Whereas the most successful plays about falling in love feature characters who talk to one another, and contain lines that resonate down the centuries.

healthy meal

Is the art of conversation dead? Maybe we should ask, was it really all that artistic in days before films and Internet and TV?

Jane Austen, to whom the art was important, makes it clear that no, not everyone understood good conversation. In her various novels, we see some very funny examples of what not to do in conversation, from the vapidity and selfishness of the Thorpes in Northanger Abbey to Mrs. Elton’s determined efforts to gain, and keep, the center of attention in Emma.

Those plays we quote have endured because they continue to delight us. The duller plays are lost, and I suspect the films without much said will be forgotten as soon as the fashionable style that replaces talk falls out of fashion.

There are some who maintain that conversation has shifted to Facebook and Twitter, and there, the art of exchange  can be discerned and its lack equally discerned.

I overheard someone saying that he’d begun defriending anyone Tweeting or Facebooking their lunch, and defriending with extreme prejudice when the picture contains a smug caption about how few calories said lunch contains.

There are many who have developed various online media into artful and interesting conversations, perhaps the more admirable because we don’t have the aid of tone of voice and body language as clues. That means we also don’t have the automatic hierarchy-assignment prompted by gender, age, looks.

When you think of wit and conversational art today, whom do you point to?



Wit and the Art of Conversation — 29 Comments

  1. I point to an enormous varieties of African American wit, from the street to the intellectual to the entertainer to the academic. The music, for sure, is filled with sharp insightful commentary about other music, just for starters.

    But Africans have always been artfully witty (as well as artful), and their modes came here with slavery. Snap babee, snap.

  2. Another place where wit is as common as mosquitoes in summer is our friends and issuing from the mouth of my husband. Now the latter can say some very stupid stuff as well, particularly when he’s randomly firing off his mouth before coffee, but when he’s on it babee, he can stand up there with very best, batting it back-and-forth. Generally though, musicians who play in groups, are pretty good at that, particularly those who play jazz, or any kind of music where rhythm is what matters.

  3. When you think of wit and conversational art today, whom do you point to?

    Well, I *used* to point to Roger Ebert on Twitter, because he was among the finest. We lost so much when he died. Mallory Ortberg and Mara Wilson are some of my favorite people on Twitter now.

    • Ebert was wonderful. I’m so sorry he’s gone.

      I’ll have to look up these two names–not familiar with either. But then I can only manage about ten minutes a day on Twitter.

  4. The Importance of Being Earnest is a masterpiece of wit.

    But on
    “the author tried to define true wit as a resemblance of ideas, and false wit as a resemblance of words”
    because he was in the middle of a situation of semantic drift. C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words has a whole chapter on it. The particular shift here is to the current meaning from “the essential gift of a poet,” with particular reference to the Metaphysical Poets.

  5. I agree that Mallory Ortberg is very funny–I see her things linked to a lot, and they always make me laugh. Here’s an example, “Women Trying to Drop Polite Hints in Western Art History”.

    I was going to point you to a young woman on Youtube whom I really enjoy watching, but I started thinking about how you were asking about wit and conversation, not just humor, and I was thinking about how that’s harder! But on Twitter (as on LJ, more so in the past than now, but even now from time to time), you’ll sometimes have a bunch of people riffing in quick and humorous succession on some theme. Those are fun both to witness and to participate in.

    • Yes! I love humor–and my sense of humor is pretty simple, about sixth grade. I can laugh and laugh at turns and twists with book titles, for example, like Farewell to Arms and Legs. I know that’s juvenile, but it still makes me smile–and when I first heard it, sitting under an umbrella with a couple of friends in Chur, Switzerland back in the mid-seventies, I think we laughed for several minutes straight.

    • You should follow Mallory on twitter! I gave her username up top. She is just as much fun in conversation.

  6. Mallory Ortberg is certainly a master of her craft. But I find great joy in the wit that is not publicized, because it is personal. My friends and I often have such exchanges, and they are the most amusing to me, because they are a brilliant combination – but only our circle understands them. Some wit is universal – but I feel that the more personal the wit, the more amusing it will be. The wit my circle shares, with references to Biblical books, Tractates (Gemara), philosophu and fantasy is what I most enjoy, beyond any comedian or famous wit, living or dead.

    It reminds me of a funny joke I once heard, which I still claim is the funniest joke I’ve ever heard (that I remember). But given that one needs to know about linguistics, physics and philosophy to fully understand it (or at least to have read or know of Chomsky, Heisenberg and Godel), it is not the kind of joke to share with many people.

    • I think Chesterfield and some of the eighteenth century writers were working their way toward a similar view, that in-jokes are often the funnier to those who understand all the references. (The key here is understanding all the references, and sometimes that can only be done by people who live and work together, or grow up together.)

  7. Ooh, I was coming to say that wit is clever but not always kind, and that one of the cornerstones of true wit is timing, since it’s so hard to come up with the cleverest comment or retort at the right time, but it looks like I’d be preaching to the choir. 🙂

    Katharine Hepburn films strike me (as someone who has only seen a few of them) as being witty, with Bringing Up Baby a specific example, although I also seem to remember it as being embarrassingly misogynistic (of its time, perhaps, but still wince-inducing). That’s not a terribly modern example, though.

    …I’d thought of a more modern example but then I had to go make dinner and now I’ve forgotten. Perhaps Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow and all, but they’re scripted, among other things…

    • The writers for Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow are certainly witty!

      There’s a lot of witty banter in many of Hepburn’s other films. She could really deliver a line, even if she didn’t write a one of them.

  8. Yes, and “The Thin Man” films — though also featuring some very outdated “drunk” humor. And one of my favorites with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — “The Gay Divorcee.”

  9. I notice some fine wit among my Facebook friends. A witty post will provoke some very entertaining comments, and I notice that I make an effort to provide some sparkle in my responses based on the ones that came before.

    The Thin Man movies came from the novel by Dashiell Hammett, which was itself fully of witty dialogue (and much alcohol). But thinking about this took me even farther back: I adore the scenes between Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh nailed it in the movie, but I’ve seen some good actors do it on stage as well. Timing is essential in doing those scenes. Probably timing is essential for unscripted wit as well.

  10. I agree with comments on timing and delivery. Most wit is evanescent.
    Unkind remarks made to people’s faces–especially if the recipient is at a lower power level–might be clever. I don’t find them funny.

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