To Wit

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					 To Wit

   “The Englishman is funny; he makes you laugh. The Irishman is witty; he makes you
think.” So goes an early line in the 2004 film Blind Flight, about an Englishman and an
Irishman. No, they don‟t walk into a bar, but they do find themselves held hostage
together for several years in Beirut in the 1980‟s. The line highlights the subtle but
essential distinction between wit and general humor, and aligns wit, as it should, with a
kind of cognition that humor which is not witty may not require.

  Wit is agonizingly elusive to define. One can inventory its characteristics but find that
the sum of the parts do not satisfactorily add up to a whole. It is largely a verbal device,
although one can perhaps imagine cleverly juxtaposed objects providing the same effect,
nonverbally, as a wisecrack. Wit, and humor in general, depends on the unexpected and
in this way is a close relative of irony. But it is this dependence on the unexpected which
makes wittiness a socially dangerous tool. If the audience does not share one‟s
expectations, the audience will certainly not appreciate the wit.

   Those of us gifted or cursed with wit have probably all had both the experience of
making a witty remark which went unrecognized or misunderstood, sometimes with
unfortunate consequences, and also of being accused of making a witty remark when
none was intended. In this regard wit is similar to humor. Anyone with a sense of humor
knows the deflation caused by an audience who did not get the joke or the indignation
resulting from a serious comment taken as humorous. I once went to a Bar Mitzvah for
twins and the father of the boys handed me a prayer book, saying “English in the front
and Hebrew in the back.”

   Wanting to try to follow some of the Hebrew, I asked if those pages went in reverse.

   “Ha ha, very funny,” he answered curtly, and I felt chastised, as if I‟d done something
inappropriate. But it was an honest and sober question.

    The proximity of wit to cogitation makes it one measure of intelligence. Parents
whose children are being tested for intellectual giftedness are sometimes asked whether
their child has “a sense of humor.” But this is not really what the psychologist is after.
Anyone can think something or other is funny and it does not take much sophistication to
laugh at a person slipping on a banana peel or a song about diarrhea. We laugh because of
nervous discomfort—we could be the one experiencing the pratfall or having an accident
rounding third base. Laughter dissipates the tension of possibility, and flows from our
relief that we are not the unfortunate one. It is a visceral response.

   No, the association of wit with intelligence-- although there are certainly intelligent
people who are neither witty nor especially funny-- is that it not only depends upon deft
linguistic craftsmanship that includes honing the remark down to the bare minimum, but
also relies upon quick ad lib thinking, comic timing, accurate appraisal of one‟s audience,
and deadpanning, among other things. Walter Nash, in his dully titled book The
Language of Humour, noted the significance of what he called “compression” in certain
types of wit, reminding us of Shakespeare‟s adage that “brevity is the soul of wit.”
Among the bits of graffiti and local sayings found around England which purport to
describe various locations, Nash offers this witticism: “Living in Coventry is like
watching a plank warp.”

   Why is this witty and not merely funny? For one thing, it is modeled on, and thereby
takes advantage of, a certain type of recognizable trope, if you will, so that one does not
have to know anything specific about Coventry to get the joke. Secondly, this equational,
analogy-based trope may vary in certain details of inner structure and yet still be
recognizable. The tropes may be of the simple forms such as X = Y, X: Y (as in one I
heard the other night along the lines of “Oklahoma: the largest prison without walls”), as
well as X is Y or X is like Y; or they may be somewhat more syntactically complex, “To
see X = Y” or “Doing X = Y”, as in the Coventry example. Thirdly, the punch line of a
witticism such as this one is in the final word, but the power of that word to burst forth
depends on the gun having been loaded and the hammer cocked earlier in the remark.
Nash notes that, for instance, the suggested dynamism of “living” in the subject of the
sentence is counterpointed by the passive “watching” in the predicate; the choice of the
word “plank” rather than “wood” connotes thickness, which in turn is associated with
stupidity (and, by virtue of the verb „is‟, further associated with the subject “living in
Coventry”); and finally, the choice of “warp” makes reference to a process which is
normally so slow that one only notices its effects after a long time.

   This analysis--or autopsy, perhaps--may illustrate the craftsmanship of witticisms but
only some witticisms require the recognizable trope, just as jokes may take such
routinized forms as “Did you hear the one about…” or “Knock-knock.” If too familiar,
however, the shtick flat-lines. Further, while humor can be harmless as well as mean-
spirited, wit is generally edgy. It is either slightly mean or downright sardonic, and the
best of it is opportunistic of context: it seizes the moment that presents itself. One can
interrupt a lull in nearly any casual exchange with a joke. Not so with wit. It must be
integrated into the exchange and integrated instantaneously. When told out of its original
context, either by the originator or as second-hand news, it may still be funny, but lacks
the same power to startle that wit has. My father was often witty; my mother had witty
expressions, but they were often hackneyed, and had been handed down from her
grandparents. When an insect hit the windshield and my children first heard me say “bet
he won‟t have the guts to do that again,” they roared, as did I when I first heard it from
my mother. But it wasn‟t original, so it was not witty to anyone in the know.

  History and especially literary study is rife with witty characters ready to take
advantage of any open door to witticism. For reasons the reader may ponder, many of
them seem to be Irish. Nash relates a story about Jonathan Swift, whose wittiness was
prodigious, and even crossed languages. At a reception where a violin lay on a table,
Swift watched as the gown of a passing woman swept the instrument to the floor. He
remarked by quoting Virgil‟s ninth Ecologue: Mantua, vae, miserae nimium vicina
Cremonae, “Alas, Mantua, too close a neighbor to wretched Cremona.” Nash explains
that this line
   ostensibly refers to the resettlement of army veterans in the Roman provinces, with the
   consequent eviction of the unfortunate natives. (Cremona was the principal victim, but
   Mantua, Virgil‟s birthplace, lay nearby and shared the taint of having supported the
   wrong party in a civil war.)…Swift cleverly made the Virgilian line designate objects
   of his own time and culture. „Mantua‟ was the name for a kind of loose gown, and
   Cremona—the home of Antonio Stradivari-was renowned for the skill of its violin

(74-75). Anyone else who may have seen the incident might have found it funny, but
only Swift was inspired and adept enough to enshrine it in wit—although one wonders
how many people were able to appreciate it. As for the caustic edge of much wit, one
need only consider the following examples, with which some readers may well be
acquainted. When it was suggested that George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan ought
to reproduce, as the offspring could have Shaw‟s brain and Duncan‟s body, Shaw
supposedly quipped, “It might have my body and her brains.” And commenting upon the
lack of sense of his own countrymen, Brendan Behan once claimed, “If it was raining
soup, the Irish would go out with forks.”Oscar Wilde, upon hearing bagpipes,
proclaimed, “Thank God there‟s no smell!” It is also said by Oliver Herford that the Irish
gave the Scottish bagpipes as a joke, but the Scots haven‟t yet gotten the joke.

    C. S. Lewis, another Irishman, maintained that few words illustrate the serpentine
paths of semantic change as well as “wit.” In a passage from his 1960 book Studies in
Words, often reprinted in introductory linguistics texts, he noted that the word‟s “early
life was happy and free from complications,” but it then later “suffered the worst fate any
word has to fear: it became the fashionable term of approval among critics” (86). In fact,
according to the Oxford English Dictionary, gewit was already laden with multiple
meanings in Anglo-Saxon times, when its use could indicate “mind, or an aspect of
mind,” “right mind, sanity,” and “understanding, intelligence, reason.” While these
senses persisted, by the Middle English period the word also referred to “the five senses”
and picked up its association with fast thinking as “genius, talent, mental quickness,” but
also, oddly enough, “wisdom, discretion, prudence,” virtues with which it certainly no
longer seems in league. By the time of Chaucer the word added “practical ability” to its
repertoire of uses. It was not until the 1600‟s or so that it could be used to refer to a
clever person, and later still found an association with language in particular—the quality
of apt association between thought and expression (after 1600), “talent for saying
sparkling things” (in roughly the 18th century), and, by the 1800‟s, a person able to
express himself so aptly.

   Wit and wise are cognates stemming from a Germanic root conveying something of
the meaning “knowledge.” We may be familiar from our German classes with the verb
wissen, as distinguished from kennen, both of which mean „to know,” but only the latter
shares the same source as our modern English word. Wissen indicates a knowing that
comes from having seen, which suggests an element of verification such as is required to
“know” something in an intellectual sense—hence, perhaps, the development of the “five
senses” meaning the word once had. In Anglo-Saxon (wīs) and Middle English, the two
“know” words were still distinguished. James Joyce‟s reference to the title of a
manuscript from the Middle English period, Agenbite of Inwit, or remorse (again-bite) of
conscience (the wit within), demonstrates quite literally that the term was still in active
use. An early English folk song from the colonial period has the line, “If I had wist,
before I kissed…” (if only any of us had), but by this time, the word had begun to lose its
reference to the more quotidian aspects of mental capacity; it survives today only in a few
forms other than “wit,” “wisdom,” “wise”—as in certain prefabricated idioms such as the
phrases “to wit” or “to keep one‟s wits.”

   At present, with the old word “ken” having disappeared except in northern English
dialects such as Scots, some may choose to contrast “wisdom” with “knowledge,” and yet
the meaning of “to know” has broadened considerably to cover both these senses. But
knowing still depends upon seeing in some way (in contrast to simply believing
something to be true), and humor in general depends upon the observation of everyday
human phenomena. The felicitous display of wit, however, requires that others have
instantly been made to see something, as in a sudden flash of insight, with new eyes.
Because wit is thus dependent upon social context, those who would be witty must ever
watch the company they keep.

   I am at my wits‟ end.

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Description: Essays published in The Vocabula Review, The Shocker, and other periodicals