I've always envied people (mostly people in novels) who can summon up a snappy rejoinder or a memorably cutting phrase in a split second, without any apparent effort whatsoever.
I was reminded of this when watching a rugby game between the Waikato Chiefs (a real pleasure to watch this season) and the Queensland Reds, where the commentators were Aussie blokes with silver tongues. "I have to say it, there are too many Chiefs and not enough Indians on the field," quipped one after the Chiefs had made yet another runaway try. "That was great refereeing," said a second commentator, reminiscing about some past match. "'Great refereeing' is an oxymoron," retorted the other.
Enviable indeed! And entertaining, too.
It brought to mind those famous quips and putdowns that one hears quoted rather often, an awful lot of which seem to be the heritage of British parliamentarian Winston Churchill. Writers also feature boldly in this off-the-top-of-the-head list:
There is that infamous exchange between Churchill & Lady Astor, for a start. She said, "If you were my husband I'd give you poison," and he retorted, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it." And who was the woman he accused of being ugly? "You're drunk!" she exclaimed. "Yes," he agreed; "but I'll be sober in the morning."
Disraeli could be quick with a snap, too. A member of Parliament exclaimed, "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease!" "That depends, Sir," countered Disraeli, "on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."
Churchill again: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire," he quipped about one, and, "A modest little person, with much to be modest about," concerning another.
"He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary," said William Faulkner, about Ernest Hemingway.
"Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?" Ernest Hemingway snapped right back.
Mark Twain, too, was a master of the phrase that devastates. "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it," mused he once, concerning some unfortunate character.
"He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends," meditated Oscar Wilde, about another.
"I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play; bring a friend.... if you have one," wrote George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill.
"Cannot possibly attend first night, will attend second... if there is one," Churchill responded.
P.S. Ever wondered about the indignant and ruffled scowl on Churchill's rugged countenance in the famous photograph by Yosef Karsh? It's because Karsh had had the nerve to pluck the famous cigar out of the famous quipper's mouth.