Distinguishing Types of Wit

By Bob Litton

“We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of course, powerful muscles, but no personality.”  — Albert Einstein

A favorite word —I might even say, the favorite word— of the Augustan Age (1660-1800) was wit.  Recently, while attempting the read of a rather tedious compilation of 17th and 18th Century literary pieces, I was again struck by the ubiquity and variety of wit’s use by authors of that era.  The book¹ is a browned and brittle paperback volume dating from the year I took a course in Augustan Age English literature at Southern Methodist University.  I didn’t read all of it then nor the second time I delved into it two decades ago, but I am determined to finish that book now along with all the other unread works constituting about a third of the volumes on my two book cases.  It’s a to-the-death-of-me project.

It is hard to imagine the ubiquity of wit, the word, in writings of that time; I’m a bit surprised the term didn’t find its way into the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution; but it didn’t, presumably because not many of its uses fit the tone of those publications.  In England, the word appeared frequently in the works of writers from John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)² to Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)³.  The latter, especially, made much use of the term and seemed to prize the quality above many other attributes a person might possess.  Wit, both as a term and as an admired characteristic, was in fact so prominent during the period that Joseph Addison (1672-1719) devoted two of his Spectator issues (No. 58, May 7, 1711 and No. 62, May 11, 1711) to defining and analyzing the word.

But, before I go much farther, I should exhibit a dictionary’s definition of wit.   Here is an abbreviated definition from my 1991 Merriam Webster’s dictionary:

  1. a: MIND, MEMORY   b: reasoning power: INTELLIGENCE
  2. a: SENSE  — usually used in the plural (alone and warming his five wits, the white owl in his belfry sits — Alfred Tennyson);   b.  (1) mental soundness: SANITY — usually used in the plural  (2): mental capability and resourcefulness : INGENUITY
  3. a: astuteness of perception or judgment: ACUMEN;  b: the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse;  c: (1) a talent for banter or persiflage; (2) a witty utterance or exchange.
  4. a: a person of superior intellect: THINKER;  b. an imaginatively perceptive and articulate individual especially skilled in banter or persiflage.

And since “banter” and “persiflage” are not part of the general public’s ordinary lexicon, I’ll add brief definitions of those terms as well:

BANTER:  good-natured and usually witty animated joking.

PERSIFLAGE:  frivolous, bantering talk; light raillery.

In his essays, Addison took particular aim at what he called “false wit”.  The first sort of false wit he mentions are those short poems printed in a manner such that they resemble objects, e.g., an egg, angel’s wings or an altar.  George Herbert (1593-1633) frequently used that mode of poetic structure.  An American poet I knew personally, William Burford, wrote at least one poem employing that structure: a Christmas tree.

Other types of “false wit” which Addison denigrates (in his second essay) are anagrams (the transposition of a word or phrase to make a new word or phrase), chronograms (inscriptions in which certain letters are read as Roman numerals and thus as dates), lipograms (poems in which a letter of the alphabet is entirely omitted), acrostics (lines of verse in which the first letters form a word or phrase), and puns.  “True wit”, wrote Addison, “consists in the resemblance of ideas, and false wit in the resemblance of words.”  Emphasis mine.  (One of the weaknesses of Shakespeare was his over-abundant use of puns.)

Furthermore, Addison wrote, “…every resemblance of ideas is not that which we call wit, unless it be one that gives delight and surprise to the reader: these two properties seem essential to wit, more particularly the last of them….Thus when a poet tells us the bosom of his mistress is as white as the snow, there is no wit in the comparison; but when he adds, with a sigh, that it is as cold too, it then grows into wit.”

Now I will divert into personal experience.  I consider myself a natural humorist.  What I mean by that is that whenever I make a wry remark or point out a curious irony, I am merely taking humorous note of objects or events in the world around me.  For instance, once, in a university class where we were studying The French Revolution and Napoleon, the professor, while describing the Paris of the 18th Century, mentioned a street that was, and still is, known as constituting “the red light district”.  For those of my readers who may not be acquainted with that phrase, a “red light district” is an area where prostitution is the dominant occupation.  After the professor had mentioned this street and its continuing reputation and had gone on to other points in his lecture, I raised my hand.

“Yes?” said the professor, by way of inviting me to ask a question.

“How do you spell the name of that street?”

The class broke out in laughter, and the professor smiled while he pointed an index finger at me as though he were about to fire a pistol.

Now, I could have thought the whole day long alone in my room and not have been able to come up with that bit of persiflage — 3(2) above; but I was able to take advantage of the opportunity when it popped up in front of me.  On the other hand, I can’t recall the last, or indeed any, time that I employed a pun; while a person I know in my town can hardly utter a sentence without engaging in punning repartee.  In other words, my humor is in my marrow, not my brain.

The wittiest moment I ever witnessed, however, was not in person but on the radio.  A culturally oriented station in Dallas, WRR-FM, which mostly plays classical music, used to run a local comedy hour as well as a syndicated panel of “wits”.  I never heard enough of either of those shows: the DJ on the first played all kinds of comedy records, especially skits from “Beyond the Fringe” albums; the moderator on the panel show would present a phrase for some member of the panel to elaborate on.  My favorite memory of the latter show was one in which the moderator quoted that old bromide, “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”.  The male panelist who accepted the challenge related a long, hilarious story about how and why the sow lost one ear and someone creatively used it to make a purse.  I don’t recall the details (most regrettably, how he transformed the ear into silk), so I can’t adequately represent the hilarity of the fellow’s tale.  Just take my word for it: that was what I would nominate as the perfect example of true wit — 2(2) and 3b above.

Now for a much more personal anecdote relating to the importance of the meaning of wit in the daily struggle to survive.  I must interpose here a slight bit of mystical tenor.  Back in the early 1990s, while I was a frequent attendee at AA meetings, my spiritual antennae extended: I experienced some mystical episodes.  However, I don’t intend to expand this essay into a theological treatise; I merely mean to lay out the back-story for the event I will share.

During my mystical period, I was “touched” in various ways much as the lead character, Jerry Landers (John Denver), experienced in the 1977 movie Oh, God!  I’m referring to the scenes in which Jerry receives an appointment note from God in the mail, tosses it away as a supposed joke from a friend, and then finds it again in a head of lettuce.  Thankfully, I did not “see” God, nor did I ever “hear” Him.

At the time, I was working for temp agencies while trying to find a permanent job doing anything that was stable.  I applied at a department store chain’s corporate office in Dallas; although, viewing my application as insensibly pathetic, I didn’t really expect to be summoned for an interview.  However, as I was driving home one day from an assignment in Richardson, the name of a grade school classmate, Roland Lindsey, popped into my mind.  While I was wondering why I had thought of him, the name of an air force buddy, Donald Lindsley, also popped into my consciousness.  I pondered the oddity of those two invading my mind for a short while and then forgot them.  Entering the apartment that I shared with my brother Elbert, I noticed a note he had left for me on a step of the stairway leading to our upstairs bedrooms.  “Bobby, call Ronald Lindley at the department store (I’m leaving the name of the company out for a reason that will be evident shortly).”  I felt a sensation of near-shock: So that was the reason I had thought of those two names!

I called Mr. Lindley the next day and we set up an interview appointment.  The job opening was that of editor of an in-house magazine directed toward an audience of female sales associates whose average age was 40 — something to read in the company’s break rooms.

I had included photocopies of two of my newspaper clippings with the application, so I made the mistake of not taking my large clipbook with me to the appointment.  Also, I had to wait an irritatingly long time in the anteroom at Mr. Lindley’s office before I was called in, which didn’t help my attitude any.  During our conversation, I began to suspect that whoever forwarded my application to Mr. Lindley had left out the clippings or Mr. Lindley had neglected to read them.  He described the job to me and stressed how important it was for the editor to not only grab the readers’ interest but to liven up their day with humor.

“Are you witty, Mr. Litton?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure what he meant by “witty”, but after a pause I answered “Yes”, thinking of wit as being the same thing as general humor.  My hesitancy in replying caused him to doubt my understanding of his question.

“Are you adept with punning?” he said.

“I don’t express myself that way much.  I just am adept at being funny.”

Out of pretended politeness, he asked me some questions about Monahans and Ward County, where I had worked as the newspaper editor for five and a half years.  Then he said, “I don’t think you’re the caliber of person we need.”

“I don’t think so either,” I replied, not attempting politeness.

Mr. Lindley summoned his assistant.  “Sandra, please show Mr. Litton the way to the elevator so he won’t get lost in these halls.”

I went home, where I picked up the book I mentioned above to distract my mind from the day’s disappointment.  I had been reading that book for several days already; it was my second attempt to read it all the way through.  Suddenly, I was stunned to discover that the next piece to read was that very essay I have just discussed, the one about the distinction between “true” and “false” wit.  I slapped my brow in disgust.  Had I read Addison’s essays prior to my job interview I would have been better prepared to present my case.   I became angry at God, or rather the Holy Spirit, because that was the Person with whom I had related, not God the Father or Jesus.  Why did the Holy Spirit mislead me like that? I wondered.

That night, just after retiring, I felt a strong impulsion to read the book of Jonah — a book I had never read before.  I took my Bible off the shelf in the headboard of my bed and read.  Near the story’s end, where Jonah is lamenting the withering of the gourd which God had provided him for shade, and wishing he were dead, God asks Jonah, “Are you right to be angry over the gourd?”  I felt like I had been struck between the eyes with insight.

There are many directions contemplation of that episode can take us, but, in the last analysis, isn’t it simply funny?


¹ English Prose and Poetry 1660-1800, A Selection, Edited by Frank Brady and Martin Price, (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: 1961).

² Rochester fancied himself a libertine in the mold of Boileau and Hobbes and thus professed a distrust of Reason (wit), which his contemporaries, on the other hand,  generally appreciated.  In his most famous poem, “A Satyr (i.e., satire) Against Mankind”, he wrote:  “And wit was his vain, frivolous pretense/Of pleasing others at his own expense,/For wits are treated just like common whores:/First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors./The pleasure past, a threatening doubt remains/That frights th’ enjoyer with succeeding pains./Women and men of wit are dangerous tools,/And ever fatal to admiring fools:…” (Lines 35-42).

³ In contrast to Rochester, Dr. Johnson rated wit highly, perhaps second only to piety, both of which qualities he saw in Jonathan Swift.  In his prefatory essay to Swift’s works,  Johnson wrote:  “In the reign of Queen Anne he turned the stream of popularity against the Whigs, and must be confessed to have dictated for a time the political opinions of the English nation.  In the succeeding reign he delivered Ireland from plunder and oppression; and showed that wit, confederated with truth, had such force as authority was unable to resist.”


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