Fore note: Over four decades ago, in my 12th grade, my syllabus included a treasure chest of English essays which I had foolishly discarded. Among these was a memorable essay on the ‘Artless Art of Repartee’ by an author whose name I had forgotten. It seemed impossible to get hold of this essay but thanks to the World Wide Web, I managed to do so. Originally authored by Sir Edward Sullivan in 1923, this essay is still quoted by many writers on repartee. My blog is inspired by Sir Sullivan’s original piece.
There was a time when the late Prime Minster of India, P V Narasimha Rao was asked by a journalist “Sir, why do you always answer a question with a question?” Pat came the reply “why shouldn’t I answer a question with a question?” Such is the spontaneity of repartee that it leaves the person at the receiving end dumbfounded and speechless.
The word ‘repartee’ owes its origin to the French word repartir which is a retort. Sir Sullivan states, “I have used the word ‘artless’ in my title for good reason, for if there be even a suggestion of premeditation about a repartee, it ceases to be what it is meant for – its power is gone…repartee is the saying of something on the spur of the moment which, by the unanimous consent of the hearers, leaves the person replied to practically destitute of speech by way of defence.”
While repartee may be considered as the peak of wit, it necessarily needs to meet two conditions. First, it’s always a rejoinder and second, it is delivered with lightning speed. The rejoinder need not always be a response to a spoken delivery and could include a response to an irritating action. Timing is the essence of repartee! It is different from ‘staircase wit’ which is when we think of a rather witty reply but only once we’ve left the door and are heading down the staircase. A repartee is typically delivered with courtesy although sometimes along with cleverness. It is distinct from an acrimonious reply but is brutal in its action. Which is why the Irish refer to it as an “insult with its dress suit on.”
Although one witnesses repartees in different walks of life, the most notable ones are to be observed in politics and the courtroom. In this piece, I have compiled a selection of some of the choicest of repartees.
- Referring to Schwarzenegger’s comment at last summer’s Republican National Convention that he was inspired to get into politics by Nixon, Phil Angelides offered the repartee: ‘Funny thing, Governor. So was I.’
- British MP: Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease!
Benjamin Disraeli: That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress!
- A diplomat walked into Abraham Lincoln’s office and saw the great man shining his own shoes, and remarked, “Mr. President, you black your own boots?” “Yes, Lincoln replied. “Whose boots do you black?”
- Citizen: Candidate, “If you was the angel Gabriel himself, you’d never have my vote”
Candidate: “My friend, if I was the angel Gabriel, your name would not be on the register.”
- Lady Astor: Churchill, if you were my husband, I’d put poison in your tea.
Churchill: Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.
- Churchill (on the receiving end): I’ll make a bet she doesn’t even know how many toes a pig has.
Lady Astor: Why don’t you take off your little shoosies, and we’ll count them together.”
- Irate British MP: Prime Minister, must you fall asleep while I’m speaking?
Churchill: No, it’s purely voluntary.
- George Bernard Shaw sent Sir Winston Churchill a card with two complimentary tickets for the opening night. The card allegedly read: “Here’s two tickets to my new play. Bring a friend – if you have one.” Churchill: “Cannot attend opening night. Will come to second night – if there is one.”
- An exasperated Justice Kuldip Singh is believed to have demanded of Ramaswamy during the course of the hearing: “You think we are fools?” Ramaswamy replied with much gravity: “My lords have put me a very difficult situation. If I agree I am in contempt, if I disagree I commit perjury.” That got even the judges laughing.
- John Curran, member of the Irish House of Commons was arguing before Judge Fitzgibbon when he was interrupted by this cutting remark: “Mr. Curran, if that is law, I may burn my law books.” “Oh, no, my lord,” replied Curran: “better read them.”
- Lord Chief Justice Russel was asked in court one day by a brother barrister what was the extreme penalty for bigamy. “Two mothers-in-law,” was the answer.
- Cardinal Vaughan and Dr. Adler, the Chief Jewish Rabbi, were next to one another at a luncheon. “Now Dr Adler,” said the Cardinal, “when may I have the pleasure of helping you to some ham?” The Rabbi replied without a pause “At your Eminence’s wedding.”
- Dr Potter, Bishop of New York was asked by a lady how it was that in pictures and statues the angels are always represented as women or young men without beards or moustaches: “Everyone knows that women naturally inherit the kingdom of heaven, but the men only get in by a very close shave.”
- Patient (to attractive nurse): Will you be my wife when I recover?
Patient: Then you love me?
Nurse: Oh, no; that’s merely part of the treatment.
- Attorney: Doctor, how many of your autopsies have you performed on dead people?
Witness: All of them. The live ones put up too much of a fight.
Repartees have been recorded for centuries. In medieval India, Emperor Akbar, who always loved to cut a joke at Birbal’s [the emperor’s courtier] expense, silently shifted the fruit peels from his plate to Birbal’s plate. Birbal sitting next to Akbar observed the emperor’s mischief. All of a sudden, Akbar remarked: “Hei! Look at the number of peels in Birbal’s plate. He was so hungry today that he has consumed double the quota of fruits.” Everyone in the feast hall laughed and giggled. But Birbal said undauntedly, “The Emperor seems to be hungrier than me. Look at his plate. He has not spared even the fruit peels!” He thereby set everybody to rib-tickling laughter.
Even in the spiritual realm we have myriad references to the wit and repartee of Mulla Nasruddin and Shankaran Pillai. What’s very clear is that a repartee is a comeback without violence. Compare this with the hateful rejoinders on social media today and it becomes clear that repartee is a level-setter accompanied by laughter. Without it, humanity would be so much poorer off.