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Thanksgiving – Wit

As an exercise in almsgiving over the next 40 days, this webpage will joyfully give up its praise and thanks for one aspect of life, and not always necessarily a religious one.

If you watch a comedian lately it is rare to find a performer who doesn’t litter their material with foul language. This is a great cop out because as Monty Python and countless other comedians have shown, you get greater laughs from the fullest use of our rich language than only a coarse portion of it. How maddening to think that such performers have had so much time to come up with and polish their material and yet they still clutch for the easy laugh using the lowest common denominator of cussing.


In a more refined or civilized era there was an art form to conversation and social discourse and those who sparkled brightest at it were known as great wits. Their tools of the trade were the retort (taken from Latin retortus – to turn back) meaning a sharp reply to a specific directed remark, or repartee (from the French fencing term for an advancing blow or thrust) meaning a clever or witty remark in any social situation. Those people who have skill in this area often leave us floundering in their wake and only managing to think up a solid comeback hours after the moment has passed.


When in need of an mood pick up I sometimes leaf through old favourite books and revisit the dog eared pages to see things that made me laugh. The creme de la creme is a book called “Viva la Repartee” which has combed biographies, newspapers and YouTube to put together the best witty remarks throughout history. The entire book is almost dog-eared and it goes to show countless times how wit, when applied with brevity and quickness, can last down through the ages. It also shows how carefully chosen words can be killer weapons and land far more telling blows than fists or abuse.

To all those sharp individuals who have the quick wit needed to defuse tense situations and make us see how silly it is being serious all the time, we say thank you.

Some samples of repartee or retorts down the ages:

  • Samuel Johnson, who started one of the first dictionaries and had a way with words put down his social superior Lord Chestefield with the followng description – “this man I thought had been a wit among Lords, but I find he is only a Lord amongst (half)wits.”
  • During the plotting against James II of England, George Jeffreys, a famous judge, noted for his hanging sentences, tried a bunch of the rebels in his court room. When one of them refused to show due deference to the judge he poked him in the chest with his walking stick. “There is a rogue at the end of my cane” he said to his bailiff. “Aye” said the rebel, “but at which end?”
  • Teddy Roosevelt had a headstrong daughter Alice who would often barge into Oval Office meetings unannounced. One of his visitors complained tetchily, to which Roosevelt said “I can be President of the United States or I can control Alice, but I cannot do both.”
  • A young Winston Churchill was at a dinner party where an opinionated woman taunted him with the provocative comment that in the year 2100 women would rule the world. “Still?” was Churchill’s only response.
  • During the american civil war, Henry Ward Beecher, a preacher and brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, received a letter which read ‘Fool!’ At his next sermon he said “I have known many instances of a man writing a letter and forgetting to sign his name, but this is the only instance I have ever known of a man signing his name and forgetting to write the letter.”
  • The young unknown playwright George Bernard Shaw solicited a script to a producer and was ignored. A few years later, and by now successful, he received a telegram from the same man: “would like to produce play after all”. Shaw telegraphed back “Better never than late.”
  • Finally, the longest but most considerate putdown of all, and the grandfather of telling a person to find someone who cares. George S. Kaufman, the US playwright, was on a TV show entitled This is Show Business. Celebrity panelists would listen to the “problem” of an invited guest and then dish out wise advice. Kaufman digested the essence of the problem, that the man was having problems getting dates with women, and answered like this: “Mr Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to twenty four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the development and construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvemments in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope.”
    The other guests and host were all bamboozled. He concluded: “Mr Fisher if you could somehow put the Mt Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.”

Previous thanksgiving article: Farmers

The season of Lent asks of us for sacrifice and the foregoing of many things, but an attitude of joy and gratitude should not be amongst them.

As an exercise in almsgiving over the next 40 days, this webpage will joyfully give up its praise and thanks for one aspect of life, and not always necessarily a religious one.

At the outset it should be made clear the viewpoints expressed here are a matter of individual opinion. If any one item doesn’t coincide with your own personal tastes then why not seek to better it with some thanksgiving of your own rather than a critique? You are always welcome to do so at the Archdiocesan website feedback mechanism.

So we invite you to come, walk with us awhile, and be thankful as we journey together to Calvary and beyond to Easter.

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