A Fan of Clever Retorts
History’s greats can teach us a lesson in how to deliver the clever remark.
JACK RUNNINGER, O.D.
We’ve all heard the assessment, “He’s his own worst enemy.” But the retort, “Not as long as I’m alive,” often attributed to British politician Ernest Bevin, is the type of clever “needling” I’ve always admired.
I’m impressed with folks who can come up with clever and quick answers. I usually come up with great answers — only problem is it’s two hours later.
“This instrument measures the curvature of your cornea, and is accurate within 1/200,000 of an inch,” I told a college professor as I was using the keratometer on him. I had found that explaining tests to patients as I performed them, seemed to impress most of them. But not with this bozo. He obviously interpreted it as me giving him a snow job.
“Obviously, that much accuracy is not necessary,” he replied. I thought of a good reply, “Perhaps so, but I’d prefer to err on the side of too much accuracy rather than too little.” But it was two hours later after he was long gone.
Many of history’s greats have been expert at the clever remark. We can learn from them.
► “Mr. Douglas accuses me of being two-faced,” said Abraham Lincoln during a presidential campaign debate. “Obviously this is not true. If I had two faces, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”
► “I’ve had a wonderful evening,” said Groucho Marx to his disastrous date for the evening. “But this wasn’t it!”
I’ve been hooked more than once by something that started as what I saw as a compliment, only to turn into an insult.
► “Thank you for the book!” wrote a journalist friend after I sent him a copy of my latest book. “I shall waste no time reading it.” I was flattered that he looked forward to reading it so much, that he intended to waste no time before doing so. Until I realized that it also could mean that he didn’t plan to waste any of his time in reading it.
► “Your book has been invaluable to Julia and me,” said my former friend, Fred Dent.
“Thank you,” I responded gratefully — until his continuation.
“Our kitchen table has one leg that wobbles. But we’ve found that your book is exactly the right thickness to put under the short leg.”
Clever statements about people
► “I wasn’t able to attend his funeral,” said Mark Twain, “but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.”
And then there are the “zingers,” the quick witted answers.
► “You’re not going to forget me, are you sir,” said the hotel doorman as he held out his hand for the customary tip, as Robert Benchley departed. This doorman had completely ignored Benchley during his stay, been rude, and no help whatsoever. Benchley seized his extended hand, shook it vigorously, and said, “Of course not!!! I’ll write every day.”
► Reportedly Winston Churchill didn’t get along with the Astors. At a function, Lady Astor said to him, “You’re disgustingly drunk!”
(And Churchill probably was.)
“And you are disgustingly ugly!” said Churchill. “But tomorrow I’ll be sober, and you’ll still be ugly.” OM
JACK RUNNINGER, OUR CONSULTING EDITOR, LIVES IN ROME, GA. HE'S ALSO A PAST EDITOR OF OM. CONTACT HIM AT RUNNINGERJ@COMCAST.NET.
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