What makes a classic quip?
- 16 October 2013
There's a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, with Oscar Wilde the most-cited wit. But what makes certain quips stand the test of time, asks Olivia Sorrel-Dejerine.
Oscar Wilde has just turned 159. Or at least his sense of humour has.
Fittingly, he's the most prolific contributor to the 5,000 quips gathered in the newly published fifth edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations.
Most people can recognise at least one Wildean witticism. "I have nothing to declare except my genius," is arguably the most famous, although it's never been proven to be a true Wildeism. "I can resist everything except temptation," is another.
The best quips make you react, whether it be laughing out loud or merely smiling, says Gyles Brandreth, editor of the dictionary. The best "were funny when said but still seem to work 100 years later, whether you know the context or not", Brandreth says.
The funniest quippers capture something of the fundamental human condition rather than merely riffing on the manners of their time.
"Bob Hope said: 'You know you're getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.' And while this quote is generally amusing, it is even more amusing when you know he said that when he was old," says Brandreth.
Of the seven most cited wits in the book, only one - Dorothy Parker - is a woman. Parker's quotes, mostly delivered in the 1920s, resonate even in the 21st Century. "This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force," is a typical one-liner, although some argue it was coined by someone else.
One that was definitely hers is "brevity is the soul of lingerie", drawn from an ad campaign.
As well as the Noel Cowards and the Mae Wests, a number of politicians make it in. Winston Churchill and Benjamin Disraeli were both prolific.
But Margaret Thatcher also has a string of citations. She even provides a possible explanation for the dearth of quips from women in the book.
"If you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman."