Photo by USA today via Reuters/Matt Detrich
Have you ever thought of the perfect quip or comeback after it didn’t matter—a minute, hour, or day after your conversation has ended?
Well, there’s a name for that phenomenon. It’s called l’esprit de l’escalier, or the spirit of the staircase, and refers to the perfect retort that arises at the wrong time.
Still, you’re not doomed to sit by as clever companions exchange sharp banter. You can practice being wittier, improving your reaction times and ability to land a jab or joke at just the right moment. In his book, Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It, released in November 2018, author, editor, and journalist James Geary of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation argues that wit isn’t just for a few gifted linguists.
We can all get better at being clever. And it’s worth trying, according to Geary, because playing with language—elevating mundane communication from mere talk into a creative process—is a form of innovation that sheds new light on old ideas. Plus, it makes life less boring and more fun for you and others.
The Mechanics of Cognition
By practicing and mastering wit, learning to turn words and phrases around in the mind and presenting new juxtapositions, we can change the way we and other people see. “[W]it consists in binding together remote and separate notions, finding similarity in dissimilar things (or dissimilarity in similar things), and drawing the mind from one word to another,” Geary explains.
The wittiest among us are simply people who make unusual connections between words and ideas. There’s a refreshing element of surprise to these observations that prompts a smile or a wince from the listener who didn’t see the link until it was presented.
In cognitive terms, the brain of the wit is less inhibited than that of a linguistic dullard. “Uncensored access to associations, conscious and unconscious, is essential to wit,” Geary writes. He notes that some people who experience brain damage or have neuropsychiatric diseases lose their ability to make these associations altogether, while others suffer from witzelsucht. This German term means “wit sickness” or “wit addiction” and results in a compulsion to make jokes that are often socially inappropriate.
Understanding the neurobiology of people who suffer witzelsucht, and those who are linguistically humorless due to brain damage, could shed light on the mechanisms of wit. The caudate nucleus is one area of the brain implicated in associative learning and control of inhibitions that may explain how wit is generated, Geary explains. Likewise, the frontotemporal region influences personality, language, and emotional development. Knowing precisely how these areas of the brain interact and regulate thinking will lead to better scientific comprehension of wit.
For now what we know is this. “Witty thinking seems to recruit a unique configuration of neural processes that engage in seemingly contradictory modes of thought; the spontaneous and the deliberate, the generative and evaluative,” according to Geary. In other words, a wit is someone who is disinhibited in linking ideas creatively but also capable of evaluating these connections thoughtfully, thereby presenting unexpected and clever combinations.
A Guide to Advanced Banter
Still, we needn’t wait for a breakthrough in brain science to cultivate wit ourselves. First, just knowing that wit is a kind of associative process already makes you better equipped to be a verbal gymnast. And Geary lays out a variety of kinds of wit, showing the way this play manifests—puns, rhyme, metaphor, slang, rap, to name a few—in a book that is itself an exercise in wit.
Geary’s book is proof positive that being creative about language takes practice and can be mastered. It’s not just a natural talent.
Like other forms of creativity it is borne of knowledge. Having a rich vocabulary is a starting point. Curiosity is another important element. Appreciating language in all the places and ways it’s used—from pop music to literary fiction, scientific writing to slang—makes it easier to generate unusual combinations.
Geary began his effort by researching the history of wit. He discovered that there are no texts that truly delve into this linguistic cleverness, analyzing how it arises or why we might rely on it, although the oldest and most revered texts in the world, from the Tao Te Ching to the Bible to the plays of William Shakespeare are replete with language play.
Wit, Geary argues, isn’t just for fun. It’s also a political tool, used to subvert censorship. For example, as the Financial Times (paywall) noted in August, in China, discussions of the #MeToo movement rely on wordplay. The hashtag #RiceBunny and emojis for rice and a bunny signify discussion of sexual harassment without alerting censors to sensitive topics. The words ‘rice bunny’ are pronounced as ‘mi tu’ in Mandarin, serving as code to those in the know.
With linguistic gymnastics, we can reach people who might not otherwise think they’re interested in certain ideas and break down barriers. Hip-hop and rap, for example, exposed generations of music listeners of all classes and races to black culture they didn’t encounter in their own lives.
Likewise, wit can reinforce boundaries, keeping out the humorless or those who aren’t steeped in the lingo and in the know. It’s an efficient way to say more with less, as in the case of a metaphor, or to expose unexpected meanings.
Yet writing a book about wit was harder than the writer imagined. Geary couldn’t very well be pedantic and dull while highlighting the need for wise, fun, creative communication. So he took a colleague’s challenge to show rather than tell readers about wit, turning each chapter into a manifestation of what he’s discussing.
He raps, rhymes, puns, quips, jives, and dialogues his way through this rich history and analysis. Each section of the book, which reveals the elements of different kinds of wit, and offers insight on developing it, is written in a distinct form. And the end result is an extended dance remix on the art of the quip that is both humorous and instructive.
The book is especially timely now, when so many of us feel we are at our wit’s end. The rate of exchange between strangers and acquaintances online has never been so high. But internet chatter is often toxic and commonly resorts to vitriolic retorts, angry declarations, and unnecessary observations.
Wit is the antidote for a culture being dulled by communication overload—it’s a kind of wisdom. In Aristotle’s words, it is a form of “educated insolence.” If we were cracking wise, rather than reacting angrily, and being wittier on Twitter, we might all have a much better time.
Ephrat Livni is a writer and lawyer. She has worked around the world and now reports on government and the Supreme Court from Washington, DC.