Forms of wit, ranked

Or, a definitive list for GWQ No. 100

“If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit,” asks Dr. Willis Stone of London, “what is the highest?”

Alright, I purloined this question from this week’s Notes and Queries letterbag in The Guardian. Forgive me, it was so sweet and so cold! Plus, it’s the 100th issue of this newsletter, so I feel like I’ve earned it. Like when you do 15 minutes on the elliptical and reward yourself with a wheelbarrow of cheeseburgers.

Let’s start by rejecting the premise. Who says sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?Oscar Wilde? And you know that to be true because 130 people liked the unsourced quote on Goodreads? 🙄  

And we can go further: Sarcasm isn’t even a form of wit. In H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the author offers up this handy table:

The best definition of wit is surprising creativity. Yoking ideas together to spark delight is the whole ballgame. But that still leaves Dr. Stone’s question of what the highest form of wit actually is, so let’s commence the count down:

12. Misquotation. When you trip over the name you just dropped. As John Quincy Adams said, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap.

11. Double Insult. “If only he’d wash his neck, I’d wring it” is an economy of scorn. Still, don’t waste your breath.

10. Malaphor. If you turn a phrase by twisting your tongue, we can only ever award you partial marks. Congratulations, Tallulah Bankhead.

9. In-Joke. You hate to see it. Unless, of course, you are among a secret society of those who know better.

8. Tweet. Twitter, like the internet, is bad for us. There are some good tweets, though. Or one. There is only one good tweet:

7. Shaggy dog story. Where’s he going with this? We don’t know, but our innate hunger for narrative closure keeps us paying attention. More on this one next week.

6. Pun. Officially deemed the lowest form of wit, puns actually belong in the middling middle of the pack. Linking ideas is ideal; linking words is worse. But it’s a start, and a snack for a hungry mind. In the words of Dr. Johnson, “a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.” 

5. Telegram. Brief, vital, and ideal for lines like Billy Wilder’s: UNABLE OBTAIN BIDET. SUGGEST HANDSTAND IN SHOWER.”

4. Riposte. Who doesn’t like to see invective exposed? The snappy comeback is immensely satisfying, especially because attempts to prepare them inevitably fail.

3. Doggerel. If we take as a given that everyone hates poets, what better way to stick it to them by using their own format to mock them? Hence light verse, and a golden treasury of Ogden Nashery.

2. Epigram. Purebred doggerel. Pare away the extra words to find a sentence so brief and clever, it jams in the memory as though it were true. Like a popcorn kernel on the molar of your mind.

1. Perceptive Callback. When you are in a conversation and can cleverly reference something your companion has previously mentioned, you have ascended. The examples are rare because they are private, but when they happen, you feel like the center of the universe. Robert Benchley had an “unerring knowledge of the precise word or action that would make a person feel at ease, or happy, or important, and it is these things that are remembered by people who couldn’t repeat to you one funny word he ever said.” That, Dr. Willis Stone, is the highest form of wit.


Wit parade

Unicyclists Oscar WildeAnita LoosBooksmartRoastsJohn WilkesPatricia LockwoodMemesKatharine WhitehornDouble insultsPhyllis DillerAaron SorkinRobert BenchleyRedd FoxxHappinessTallulah BankheadFran LebowitzMephistophelesEvelyn WaughQuotationsEdith SitwellP.G. WodehouseClive JamesRebecca WestTolstoy’s blunderTom StoppardZingersWilson & Addison MiznerDorothy ParkerGreat auntsAlice Roosevelt LongworthMalcolm XCyrano de BergeracW.C. FieldsChristopher HitchensMargot AsquithBrendan BehanNora EphronWinston ChurchillNancy MitfordH.L. MenckenSigrid NunezSamuel JohnsonPhyllis McGinleyMoms Mabley Will Cuppy Mae WestGeorge Bernard ShawDick GregoryPasquinoKarl KrausThe Sunscreen SongCarl ReinerTom SwiftiesWhy👏is👏this👏a👏thing👏? Small talkElizabeth McKenzieP.G. Wodehouse, againAl JaffeeA.J. ParkinsonRussiansOgden NashFast-food TwitterRobertson DaviesSarah CooperJessica MitfordDorothy L. SayersWoody AllenGore VidalAbbie HoffmanTelegramsKate BaerMartin AmisShower thoughtsPrincess Margaret La RochefoucauldMalaphorsArmando Iannucci2020 MF DoomStephen PotterJames McBrideM.F.K. FisherS.J. PerelmanOperational nomenclatureFootnotesPatricia Lockwood, againAuberon WaughG.K. ChestertonGeoff DyerMagpiesSydney SmithYogi Berra Dagmar GodowskyTexas GuinanReference booksLanguishingEdward LearDouglas HofstadterSamuel Goldwyn


That was Issue No. 100 of Get Wit Quick, wasn’t it? Thanks to Oonagh Duncan for the subject; belated thanks to Joshua Landy for the Hofstadter mindmeld; bleated thanks to goats. This newsletter grew out of my book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting and the student has become the master. It keeps on keeping on when you tap the ❤️ below.