THE ART OF THE RE­TORT A witty come­back can win hearts – and save your skin. Joan Juliet Buck ex­plores the power and elu­sive­ness of those per­fect bons mots.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - The Culture -

Iwas a short 12-year-old in a thin dress walk­ing home one sum­mer day in Lon­don when a man drew up along­side me in a car, rolled down his win­dow, and asked, “Would you like to come home and see my cock?” “You can’t keep chick­ens in Lon­don,” I said. Now that I have your at­ten­tion, we can agree that this spon­ta­neous bit of sass prob­a­bly saved my life. His in­ten­tions were clear. He might not have killed me, but meet­ing his fowl would have left scars. I’d never used the word “cock” in that way my­self, but it called up a barn­yard scene that al­lowed me to play a lit­eral-minded en­forcer of ur­ban wildlife stan­dards.

I turned a preda­tor into the stooge who fed me my first great line. He didn’t laugh; he fled.

This sums up the four ba­sic tenets of repar­tee, which is not com­edy but wit. One, wit is a re­sponse. Two, wit must con­tain no ag­gres­sion. Three, wit must be fresh. Four, wit must be ut­tered with an in­no­cent sin­cer­ity that turns re­al­ity on its head.

One: A wit­ti­cism is a spon­ta­neous re­ac­tion to a cir­cum­stance. A quip never refers to any­thing that is not hap­pen­ing right now, and can­not be­gin with “By the way ... ,” “The other day ... ,” “When I was a child ... ,” or non se­quiturs such as “I al­ways thought dan­de­lions were onions.” The quip must mag­nify the ab­sur­dity of the Here and Now, which re­quires some dis­ci­pline, even train­ing (see Three).

There are short­cuts. The mode of arch cor­rec­tion is a use­ful standby that puts the in­ter­locu­tor in his place by tak­ing what he says as a lit­eral truth and then sling­ing a rule at it. I used it on the pae­dophile. Mar­got Asquith, Count­ess of Ox­ford and Asquith, used it on Jean Har­low in 1934. When Har­low in­sisted on call­ing her “Mar­gotte,” Asquith re­torted, “No, my dear, the ‘t’ is silent, as in Har­low.”

Two: There is noth­ing witty about ex­ple­tives, ag­gres­sion, or mean­ness. The un­der­ly­ing core of all hu­man pas­sion is frus­tra­tion laid thick over the in­abil­ity to live out the seven deadly sins, but any at­tempt to ad­dress that sub­text to prove how wise you are to hu­man flaws takes you straight into bad act­ing. “I know what you’re do­ing, you pig!” lacks élan, and, if paired with “Who do you think

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