In the Universal English Dictionary, the Old English or Middle English definition for 'wit' (witt) is 'mind intelligence'. A further definition describes wit as being - 'mind, understanding, mental power or perception; activity, alertness of mind'.
The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, published in 1911, gives the following definition:
Wit n. The salt with which the American humorist spoils his intellectual cookery by leaving it out.
Rightly or wrongly, the English have always considered themselves to be the greatest exponents of wit, even though the man they count as their most famed wit, Oscar Wilde, was in fact Irish. The following are a few of the best examples of rapier wit so that we may all become a little more ascerbic in our conversational forays.
Wit is educated insolence.
A witty quote proves nothing.
You can pretend to be serious; you can't pretend to be witty.
On an unnammed person: 'He hasn't a single redeeming vice'
Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.
A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.
It is better to be beautiful than good. But... it is better to be good than to be ugly.
Lady Astor: 'If you were my husband, I'd poison your coffee!'
Churchill: 'My dear, if you were my wife I'd drink it.'
George Bernard Shaw once sent two tickets to the opening night of one of his plays to Winston Churchill with the following note: 'Bring a friend, if you have one.'
Churchill wrote back, returning the two tickets and excused himself as he had a previous engagement. He also attached the following: 'Please send me two tickets for the next night, if there is one.'
House of Commons late one night:
Bessie Braddock: 'Winston you are drunk!'
Winston Churchill: 'Bessie, you're ugly. And tomorrow morning I will be sober.'
Churchill is dozing in a train carriage. A woman enters and sits across from him. She notices his flies are undone. 'Sir!' she exclaims, 'Your penis is sticking out!'
Churchill starts awake, gives the woman a cold stare, looks down for a moment then meets her gaze again. 'Madam, you flatter yourself. It is merely hanging out.'
George Bernard Shaw
The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
The trouble with her is that she lacks the power of conversation but not the power of speech.
Once at a social gathering, Gladstone said to Disraeli: 'I predict, Sir, that you will die either by hanging or of some vile disease'.
Disraeli replied, 'That all depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.'
Lady Nancy Astor
'I married beneath me. All women do.'
Jean Harlow: 'Why you're Margot Asquith, aren't you?' (mistakenly pronouncing the 't')
Margot Asquith: 'No my dear, the 't' in Margot is silent, as in Harlow.'
Oscar Wilde: 'Do you mind if I smoke?'
Sarah Bernhardt: 'I don't care if you burn.'
From a book review: 'This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be hurled with great force.'
'If all the girls in this beauty contest were laid end to end, no-one would be the least bit suprised.'
On a card to a friend who had just given birth: 'Congratulations, I knew you had it in you.'
When a woman told her: 'I really can't come to your party, I can't bear fools,' she replied, 'That's strange, your mother could.'
When told that President Calvin Coolidge had died, she asked, 'How could they tell?'
Describing the Algonquin Round Table: 'The Round Table thing was greatly overrated. It was full of people looking for a free lunch and asking, "Did you hear the funny thing I said yesterday".'
When her doctor told her she would be dead in a month if she did not stop drinking, she looked up at him and whispered, 'Promises, promises.'
Describing her office: 'If the office had been any smaller, it would have been adultery.'
When talking to a ladies gardening group, Dorothy Parker was asked to use the word 'horticulture' in a sentence. She replied: 'You can lead a horticulture, but you can't make her think.'
At a party: 'One more drink and I'll be under the host.'
Alice Roosevelt Longworth
If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here beside me.
On western civilization: 'It would be a good idea.'
Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.
Television - a medium. So called because it is neither rare nor well done.
When told that he wouldn't be allowed to use a certain golf club's swimming pool because they didn't admit Jews: 'My son is half-Jewish - do you think they'd let him in up to his knees?'
I never forget a face, but I'll make an exception in your case.
I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it.
Adlai E Stevenson
During his 1956 presidential campaign, a woman called out to Adlai E Stevenson 'Senator, you have the vote of every thinking person!' Stevenson called back 'That's not enough, madam, we need a majority!'
If brevity is the soul of wit, your penis must be a riot.
When it's a choice between two evils, I always pick the one I've never tried before.
On being told by Lord Sandwich that he would either die on the gallows or of the pox: 'That must depend on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress.'
On being told by André Previn (who Eric misnamed Mr Preview) that he was playing the wrong notes on the piano: 'I'm playing all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order'