Viva La Repartee

Did you par-tay in the new year? Well, now let's re-par-tay, or repartee, with Dr. Mardy Grothe, author of the new book Viva La Repartee: Clever Comebacks & Witty Retorts From History's Great Wits and Wordsmiths.

Repartee is a word we borrowed (or stole) from the French. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as 1) a ready, witty, or smart reply; a quick and clever retort. 2) Sharpness or wit in sudden reply; such replies collectively; the practice or faculty of uttering them.''

The reason I bring Dr. Grothe's book to your attention is because of the sorry state of political discourse in this country, where ''the true use of speech is not so much to express our wants as to conceal them,'' as Oliver Goldsmith observed way back in 1759.

Add cynicism and downright meanness to the mix and you've got a pretty good idea about the State of Our Linguistic Union.

Without any apparent relief in sight, I suggest you buy the book and send it to your congressional representative or the pundit you despise the most.
It might inspire a bit of imagination and creative thought, or encourage the disavowal of cliches, talking points and canned commentary so that, at the very least, we language lovers can be entertained. If we can't get honesty and humility, can't we at least have wit and humor?

After reading Grothe's book, you'll realize they don't make 'em like Winston Churchill anymore.

After one of his many drinking binges, an inebriated Churchill was interrupted during dinner by Nancy Astor, who said, ''Winston, if you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee.''

Churchill's famous reply: ''Nancy, if you were my wife, I'd drink it.''

Sure, Churchill was an imperialist. But he was witty and often very funny, which is far cry from W's aw-shucks, goofball rejoinders.

One of the many gems in ''Viva La Repartee'' comes from Voltaire, who also happened to utter one of my favorite aphorisms -- ''the optimist and pessimist both have one thing in common. They both think this is the best of all possible worlds.''

Voltaire was invited to an orgy in Paris, Dr. Grothe reports. ''Having never participated in such an event...he eagerly accepted the invitation...The intellectually curious philosopher reported that he had learned many new things and had greatly enjoyed the experience,'' Grothe writes.

With his friends thinking they had won the famed philosopher over to their hedonistic lifestyle, they invited him to attend another orgy. Voltaire replied: ''Ah no, my good friends. Once, a philosopher. Twice, a pervert.''

Imagine if when President Clinton was asked about his sexual trysts with Monica he had said, ''Ah no, my good friends. Once, a president. Twice, a pervert.'' He may have avoided the impeachment vote.

Or, how about JFK's rejoinder when a reporter asked him why he read prepared remarks instead of having impromptu press conferences like he had when he was a senator.

Kennedy replied: ''Because I am not a textual deviant.''

Imagine President Bush saying that when asked why he appears to be allergic to extemporaneous speech. Then again, if the way he pronounces nuclear is any indication, maybe you can't imagine him saying that. I can't.
Remember when Nikita Kruschev took off his shoe at the U.N. and slammed it on the lectern? (Glad you do, because I don't -- I wasn't born yet.) But thanks to the good doctor, I'm privy to former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's reply. Macmillan calmly looked to an interpreter and asked: ''Could I have that translated, please?''

Instead of diplomats who repartee like that, we have John Bolton, whose motto is Kruschev's: ''We will bury you!''

Do us all a favor. Send Dr. Grothe's book to a politician or pundit and help them ring in a new year.


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