The Woo Slang Clan of witty lovers

Or, why you don't say that to all the girls

One of the most saleable things you can say about wit is that it’s a vital part of romantic love. By Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, a trait like wit persists because of its appeal to prospective mates. Demonstrating your cognitive flexibility and communication skills showcases how nimble you’ll be at dodging sabre-toothed tigers and feeding your family. 

Centuries of sonnets attest to the wooing power of wit. And the dynamic continues in online dating, as seen in this 2011 paper reporting that “men are inclined to produce humor in romantic contexts and that women are inclined to evaluate men’s humorous offerings” likely because humour “honestly signals the presence of fundamentally important traits, such as intelligence and warmth.” (Heteronormativism noted.)

Why, then, do so few of the great wits speak of love? There are plenty of insults, one-liners, epigrams, and innuendoes about art, politics, and great aunts, but where are the words of woo?

Their absence is explained by the You Don’t Say That To All The Girls Theory: Of course their public wit wasn’t about infatuation, because what use would that be? No one wants to hear how besotted you are. Sweet nothings are only for that sweet someone — or perhaps many sweet somebodies.

The wit for the ages and the pages is the public, visible, confrontational stuff. We’re not going to hear about the private verbal dexterity because of the age-old separation of streets and sheets.

The perfect example of this divide is fictional, kind of. Cyrano de Bergerac was a real Frenchman who wrote 17th-century science fiction and had a noticeable nose (as illustrated above). But the famous Cyrano is the poet and swordsman of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, who buckled swashes, slung rhymes and had a gigantic, life-limiting nose. “I want to depart this life with honorable steel piercing my heart and a piercing epigram on my lips,” he declares in the Anthony Burgess translation. Cyrano ghostwrites love letters for a handsome doofus, an awkward arrangement given his true feeling for the reader, Roxane. Only at the end of his life does she figure out that it was Cyrano she truly loved.

The Cyrano I remember is C.D. Bales, the character played by Steve Martin in Roxanne, his 1987 adaptation of Cyrano. His Roxanne is an astronomer, and via his proxy his Cyrano declares he is “in orbit around you, I am suspended weightless over you like the blue man in the Chagall, hanging over you in a delirious kiss.” But the best lines come when he responds to a crack about his nose with 20 better ones, grouped into categories like Inquiry (“When you stop to smell the flowers, are they afraid?”), Obscure (“I’d hate to see the grindstone”) and Paranoid (“Keep that guy away from my cocaine!”)

Cyrano gave us a word for what the witty lover and the witty fighter have in common: Panache. Hilton Als defined it as sumptuous impertinence, and it’s hard to do better than that. It originally meant the feather on a soldier’s helmet, and in the play it’s the last word Cyrano speaks: 

yet there is something still that will always be mine, and when I go to God’s presence, there I will doff it and sweep the heavenly pavement with a gesture: something I’ll take unstained out of this world . . . my panache.” 


Quick quips; lightning

“Every man is thoroughly happy twice in his life: just after he has met his first love, and just after he has left his last one.”
H.L. Mencken

“Oh life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.”
Dorothy Parker

“Nine-tenths of the letters in which people speak unreservedly of their inmost feelings are written after ten at night.”
Thomas Hardy

That was the 33rd issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly billet-doux to all of you. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was a medley of extemporanea largely written after 10 p.m. All this talk of love should make you want to tap the ❤️ below.