A Repartee is an Insult with a dress-suit on
A repartee is a ready, witty and reply; a quick, sharp retort. It is not everyone that has “the artless art of repartee”; but those who have the gift can administer a rebuke that is all the more telling because it is witty and amusing. A good example to start with is the reply of John Wesley to a blustering bully who straddled across the pavement in Wesley’s path, shouting, “I never give way to fools!” “I always do”, replied Wesley politely, and stepped off the pavement. This was, indeed, “an insult with a dress-suit on”; and it was far more effective than simply calling the bully a fool — which was what it amounted to.
A rather similar example was the reply of a Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, to a brother Fellow who had got drunk at dinner the night before, and apologized next morning, saying : “My friend, I am afraid I made rather a fool of myself last night”. “My dear fellow”, the first replied, “I assure you I noticed nothing unusual”.
A member of the English diplomatic service in Rome had the honour of an interview with Pope Pio Nono. The Pope graciously offered him a cigar; but the Englishman stupidly said, “Thank your Holiness, but I have no vices”. “This isn’t a vice; if it were, you would have it”.
Lord Sherbrooke (Robert Lowe), a great educationist, was noted for his witty sayings. An enthusiastic advocate of modern studies, thinking he would please him, once said, “I have the greatest contempt for Aristotle”. “But not that con-tempt which familiarity breeds, I should imagine”, was Sherbrooke’s mild reply.
Some guests of Dr. Jowett, the famous Master of Balliol College, Oxford, were discussing whether a bishop or a judge was the greater man. One held that a bishop was greater ; for “a judge, at most, can say ‘You be hanged’, but a bishop can say, ‘You be damned!'” “Yes”, said Jowett; “but if the judge says, ‘You be hanged’, you are hanged.”
When Disraeli was standing for election as the Tory candidate at Allesbury, he was opposed by a Radical who had been a man of notoriously profligate life. The Radical candidate read at a political meeting a Radical manifesto which Disraeli had issued twenty years before in his Radical days. “What do you say to that, Sir ?” he cried to Disreali. Disraeli replied : “I say that we all sow our wild oats, and no one knows the meaning of the phrase better than you, Mr….”.