I. What is Wit?
Wit is a biting or insightful kind of humor. It includes sharp comebacks, clever banter, and dry, one-line jokes. Although wit is not necessarily cynical or insulting, it often is – that’s what provides it with its characteristic sharpness.
One key hallmark of wit is that it often takes a second to figure out. A witty remark is one that goes over people’s heads at first, but that they then get (and laugh at) after a few moments. A witty remark is a kind of mental time-bomb that only goes off once it’s been processed a bit. Thus, wittiness is a subjective quality – for some people, a line will be immediately understood and therefore not very witty (even though it might still be funny or clever). But other people might hear the same line and need to process it for a moment before they get it. To them, the line would be witty.
II. Examples of Wit
The following story is probably the single most frequently cited example of wit: Winston Churchill was once at a party, apparently quite drunk, when he had an encounter with a high-class socialite from another political party. The woman turned her nose up at Churchill and said with disdain, “You, sir, are drunk.” Churchill, not missing a beat, responded in a dry tone of voice, “You, madam, are ugly, and in the morning I shall be sober.”
For the Spartan warriors of ancient Greece, wit was considered to be as essential as physical skill. Young boys would practice hurling clever insults at each other during their military training, and the wittiest among them would often be rewarded just like the strongest and bravest. In battle, the Spartans were renowned for outwitting their opponents in addition to outfighting them, as seen in the movie 300, where a Persian emissary threatens that a group of Spartan soldiers would be obliterated if they stood up to the Persian army; “Our arrows,” he said, “will blot out the sun.” An unknown Spartan soldier is said to have smirked in reply, saying, “Good! Then we shall fight in the shade.”
Ambrose Bierce wrote a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, that compiles all sorts of witty definitions. For example, the book defines “Congratulation” as “the civility of envy.”
III. The Importance of Wit
Like other forms of humor, wit is just fun to read. We tend to admire wit and find it charming, so wittiness is a great quality for a hero to have – it shows that he/she is not only a brave fighter, but also has a powerful mind. In addition, this emphasis on humor can help show how level-headed the hero is in the face of danger. Where many of us would be panicking or running away, the heroes stand their ground; and not only that, but they also have the presence of mind to come up with a witty remark at the same time.
IV. Examples of Wit in Literature
“It’s hard to put a leash on a dog once you’ve put a crown on its head.” (George R.R. Martin, Song of Ice and Fire)
There’s plenty of wit to be found in George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, especially coming from “The Imp,” Tyrion Lannister. In this line, Tyrion is mocking at his nephew, the psychopathic King Joffrey.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” (William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
William Shakespeare was considered extremely witty in his time, though some of the humor doesn’t translate very well to a modern reader. Still, we can easily recognize the cleverness of lines like this, and see that they share the quality of “delayed reaction” that all witty lines have. It takes readers a moment to figure out what Shakespeare means by “Cowards die many times before their deaths.”
V. Examples of Wit in Popular Culture
“It’s strange that you would name your ship after a battle you were on the wrong side of.”
“May have been the losing side…”
Nearly every episode of Firefly has a witty remark from Captain Malcolm Reynolds. This one refers to the Battle of Serenity, which Captain Reynolds was on the losing side of. However, he’s still proud to have fought for the independents and in this witty remark he refuses to acknowledge that he was on the wrong side.
Wit is one of the defining features of James Bond (and many other characters) in every Bond film. In particular, the character Q, who gives Bond his gadgets, is famous for his witty lines. In The World is Not Enough, Q even makes a witty remark about this attribute of the films! When he meets Bond for the first time, he says
“Ah, the legendary 007 wit – or at least half a one.”
At their best, battle raps can be very witty. These competitions are an opportunity for people to display their skill at putting words and rhythm together on the fly, but they also frequently involve hurling insults at one’s opponent. Sometimes, these insults are obvious and uncreative, but sometimes they’re very insightful and memorable. In these cases, the rapper is showing a high level of wit.
VI. Related Terms
Wit is often sarcastic – that is, the speaker says the opposite of what they mean, but in a dry or cutting way. For example, Dr. House from House is always making such remarks about his patients and co-workers. In one episode, he defends his unorthodox actions by saying, “I take risks, sometimes patients die. But not taking risks causes more patients to die, so I guess my biggest problem is I’ve been cursed with the ability to do the math.” This line is certainly sarcastic – whether or not it’s witty is open to interpretation, since it is very easy to figure out and probably doesn’t take very long to “land.”
As the two main characters walk away into the sunset, they exchange a series of humorous jabs, making light of their situation and causing one another to laugh. This witty back-and-forth referred to as banter or repartee, and is frequently used in movies to show that two characters are clever, as well as personally close. Of course, a witty repartee is also important in real life, as friends frequently talk this way with one another.
Wordplay is a broad term that can encompass any kind of playing around with language for humor and fun. Obviously, this broad definition would include many examples of wit as well. However, wordplay usually refers to puns rather than wit. A pun is a humorous play on a word’s multiple meanings. While a pun could be witty, they are usually too simple to work in this way, and in this article none of the examples involve puns.