In the 1920s, Dorothy Parker was establishing a reputation as a witty woman with a sharp tongue (the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell called her, “My pretty, pretty cobra”). At the same time, Clare Booth Luce was becoming a respected journalist and well-known playwright. While both women were highly talented, their numerous political, philosophical, and personal differences resulted in a strained relationship. One day, Parker was about to step through a doorway when she came face-to-face with Luce. As the story goes, Mrs. Luce stepped aside, extended the palm of her hand, and said coyly, “Age before beauty.” Parker glided through the door, saying ever-so-sweetly: “Pearls before swine.”
In my previous post I used the words “guff” and “sass” and was challenged over the use of the word “guff” by my friend, Bob Weiss. He took the position that I was not known for taking guff from anyone and wondered why I might have put up with it. He then suggested that a blog piece on the term “guff” might be in order.
Bob’s challenge made me consider the joy of words and their various usages. In my initial email response to Bob, I asserted a difference between “friendly” and “unfriendly” guff, but the more I thought about his question the more I realized that my response was, at best, rather weak. And so it was that I remembered that English is an extremely rich language and I had forgotten some other terms that might well have been more appropriate to describe the matters in my post. So this is an attempt to rise to Bob’s challenge.
In truth, I enjoy raillery with my racquetball comrades while at rest between matches, badinage in the club lounge following a game while drinking ice water, and repartee any time of the day. And if I engage in persiflage with my racquetball comrades and casual listeners fail to understand the respect and humor inherent in the exchange, can that be our fault or the fault of the eavesdropper?
Guff is defined alternatively as either nonsense or verbal abuse. It is one of those words that doesn’t possess much shaded meaning. By way of contrast to prove the point, these cousins of guff are defined as follows: persiflage is frivolous bantering talk; raillery is good natured ridicule; and badinage is playful repartee. All of these terms – including some types of guff – are forms of repartee, which, itself, is defined in this context as “a succession or interchange of clever retorts.” Of course, we could use the American term “joshing” to describe such an interchange, but, as is so often the case, the French carry the day when it comes to the musicality of terminology.
The use of any of these forms of verbal exchange demands that the speaker respect the recipient, if for no other reason than the wit involved requires mental acuity on the part of both. After all, there is no joy in trading a bon mot with a dunce, since the dunce will not understand and likely take offense. If repartee is being employed, a dunce will likely be incapable of comprehending the speaker’s cleverness and wit and there will likely not be any “exchange” at all, but rather a one-sided verbal harrying which, at a minimum, will prove the speaker boorish or, at the worst, render the speaker a verbal bully. If a speaker were to take pleasure in such a one-sided put down, that would not constitute repartee in the sense that I understand of the term.
And, while some commentary used in repartee might emphasize the recipient’s personal traits or characteristics as part of the exchange, in true repartee nothing is intended to be hurtful or harmful. Of course, any form of personalized repartee can inadvertently hurt another and the more successful practitioners of these conversational forms are sensitive to this possibility. A good practitioner of the form realizes immediately when he has overstepped typically unstated boundaries and immediately apologizes. For his intent is to amuse, not to harm. The amusement he seeks to purvey is for the mutual benefit of speaker and listener, and is not intended as savagery of another.
It is undoubtedly true that these forms of conversation are more masculine than feminine and are most often conducted in the heart of a male locker room. Of course, not being a denizen of female locker rooms, I cannot be absolutely positive that I am right about this, but the best evidence for my belief is found in the oft upturned eyebrows or wrinkled noses of female companions when males of the species begin the typical routines associated with repartee. While I have known some preeminent female practitioners of repartee, to the extent that repartee provokes images wrestling take-down holds or of Tarzan pounding his breast while engaging in a most non-Western style of yodeling, it will continue to be a predominantly male endeavor as it is inherently aggressive to some degree.
The key to pleasurable repartee is a profound respect for fellow participants in the exchange. It is this respect that separates repartee and sass, the other word I used in the previous post. I note that Bob did not challenge my use of the word “sass” in describing the roots of my dislike of the young lady at the nearby coffee shop. As I review the definition of that word, I find that it embodies a sense of impudence, impertinence and cheek. All of these words suggest that the purveyor of “sass” lacks respect for the person to whom his or her comments are directed. It is this inherent lack of respect that eliminates sass as a form of repartee.
And so my response to Bob should have been that there is, on the one hand, respectful “guff” in the form of repartee among friends, colleagues and good companions that is an expression of a kind of “can-you-top this” fun and there are, on the other, disrespectful put downs and sass offered by the mean-spirited to others for reasons that often say far more about the speaker than the recipient, and never the twain shall meet for there are radically divergent purposes for their employment. When the goal is to entertain oneself and others by offering the sort of intellectual challenge one is delighted to lose by means of a surpassing quip, there is pleasure for one and all; when the goal is to merely put someone else down in hope of proving one’s own superiority, there is no joy for either the speaker or the recipient, whether in Muddville or in Seattle.
There is, of course, as there is in all things a risk of failure when practicing any form of repartee. And, because the essence of successful repartee is respect, when I fail at the game I am often moved to apology as I contemplate the effects of my failure. When I inadvertently cross the line to the point of boorishness, it is usually harder upon me than the person I may have offended. There is nothing worse than expressing something other than respect when only respect was intended.
Bob and I have certainly shared our quota of repartee over the years to our mutual delight. So I must say to Bob that any guff I ever sent your way was simply failed, witless, ineffective repartee that was, nevertheless, well-intentioned. And I take it as a given that the reverse is also true, for you are correct in your assumption that I don’t take guff from anyone.