To Wit: An E-zine On How To Be a Wit

This is an E-zine from Thomas Christopher on how to be witty.


I'm offering T-shirts and other self-expression products designed using the techniques discussed here. I've set up an online "store" at My portal site to CafePress and is I expect to use many of the designs as examples in this e-zine.

Wit makes its own welcome, and levels all distinctions.

Witty titles at the CWA

This last week was the conference on world affairs at the University of Colorado -- my favorite event of the entire year. One of my delights in the event is their use of witty titles for panel sessions. Most of the titles of CWA sessions are in the form of title colon subtitle -- one or the other of them witty; although, they sometimes use just the witty line, or just the straight one. They use a number of rhetorical and humor techniques in constructing the witty part of the title.

They use wordplay. Wordplay starts with a known phrase, a cliché, and works with it. Sometimes the clichés are used as is. For example:

  • Republicans: it's my party and I'll cry if I want to. (And the same for "Democrats." Notice that a song title can be used as a cliché.)
  • It's the end of the world as we know it

They also use reformed clichés. A reformed cliché is a cliché with a substitution for one or more of the words in it. For example:

  • Science: who's afraid of the future. (... the big bad Wolf.)
  • Waging peace
  • Separation of art and state
  • The incredible shrinking dollar. (This is based on a movie title.)
  • The why chromosome: women in science
  • A woman's right to shoes
  • I see digital people: acting's new reality

Antithesis is very common. Antithesis is the placing of opposite or contrasting words close together. For example:

  • Bush Legacy: too early to tell, too late to matter
  • Out of the closet and into the suburbs
  • Off-shoring: yesterday's solution, today's problem
  • The UN and the middle east: the solution or the problem.. ("Problem" vs. "solution" is an easy one.)
  • The candidates on Iraq: the silence is deafening
  • Health care: a right or a privilege
  • Morality: nature or nurture
  • Political change: buzzword versus reality
  • Torture: when the unthinkable becomes acceptable
  • Great scientists are more creative than great artists. (The participants in the panel agreed that this was the stupidest title they had heard.)
  • North Korea: small place, big noise
  • Evangelical atheism. (This is an oxymoron.)
  • Ban tobacco, legalize marijuana

They use triples, of course:

  • Getting out the message: advertising, propaganda and graffiti
  • Drunk, anorexic, and pregnant: celebrity heroes
  • Censorship: who, how and why
  • Word-beat-motion
  • Men, sex and power

They play with sounds using rhyme, alliteration, and meter:

  • Hip hoppers, a beat boxers, and punk rockers: a battle cry for social change
  • Naughty tricks and sexy tips
  • Why we write

As you have no doubt noticed, they are fond of puns. Here are some other examples:

  • How wii play now: the changing face of sports. (This refers to a Nintendo game controller.)
  • Bill O'Reilly and Rupert Murdoch can soundbyte me
  • A czar is reborn: imperialist Russia
  • How would a patriot act

Sometimes they revive stale metaphors. For example:

  • Is transportation going anywhere: alternatives
  • Tobacco legislation: Justice Department blowing smoke

Sometimes they use metaplasm, playing with the sounds in words, for example:

  • Mediamorphosis

They're not above using fake definitions:

  • College athlete = indentured servant
  • Feminism: the new F word

And finally, they sometimes use antistasis, using a word twice with a different meaning:

  • A civil disagreement about civil discourse
  • Energy conservation is a waste of energy

As you can see, wit is not just a matter of chance. It is based on well-known techniques.

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Thomas Christopher, Ph.D.: Seminars, Speeches, Consulting
1140 Portland Place #205, Boulder CO 80304, 303-709-5659,
Books through Prentice Hall PTR, albeit not related to wit: High-Performance Java Platform Computing, ISBN: 0130161640, Web Programming in Python, ISBN: 0-13-041065-9, Python Programming Patterns, ISBN: 0-13-040956-1