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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

That cutting phrase

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.

3 comments: said...

One of my favourites is about Nabokov... talking to an American friend in the very early seventies, who reported that a nun in one of his lectures had complained that a couple in the class near her were always spooning... and the friend had evidently told the Nun more or less to be grateful that was all they were doing
Nabokov evidently said "You should have said, 'Sister, be grateful that they were not forking." Not bad, when you consider, English was his second language.

Anonymous said...

Do you not find that snappy quotes from unknown people are frequently (and quickly!) attached to better known names, to give them added zing by association?

I've even been present when one of my own quotes was attributed to somebody more famous attending the same event!

Always read great quotes with a pinch of salt. That mousy lady nobody looks at twice might have said it first, not the lion who's the centre of attention...

Joan Druett said...

Good point! Have you noticed that when they find old portraits they always speculate that the subject was some famous name, without ever considering that it might have been some worthy (and rich) nonentity? But nonentities don't make headlines, or sell news -- or make good anecdotes.