Brevity is the Soul of Wit – Meaning, Origin and Usage

Did someone just crack a witty joke at work with a short, snappy punchline? If so, you could compliment them by saying, “brevity is the soul of wit.” This post unpacks the meaning and origin of this expression.

Meaning

Brevity is the wit of the soul” means that people that use short speech provide the best kind of humor. You don’t need to be wordy with jokes to have them make an impact. Sometimes, the shortest retorts and sayings have the most humorous effect when used in the right situation and with the right tact.

The word “brevity” refers to short or abbreviated. “Soul” refers to the root or the source, and “wit” means someone’s intelligence. For instance, if someone is half-witted, they are unintelligent, and if they “have their wits about them,” it means they are savvy and smart.

So, you could say that “brevity is the soul of wit” could mean that being short with your language is a display of intelligence.

Example Usage

“Man, did you hear that comedians set last night? It was outstanding. They say brevity is the soul of wit, and she knew how to create a punchline without dragging things out.”

“I love how Jim has a comeback for everything, and they are always legendary. Brevity is the soul of wit, and that guy gets it.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit, and Tom’s jokes are hilarious. He always gets to the punchline without losing my attention. The guy is too funny.”

“I know you think that type of humor isn’t great, but brevity is the soul of wit, and I think it’s great.”

Origin

The origin of the proverb “brevity is the soul of the wit” comes from the legendary Shakespeare play, “Hamlet.” Polonius coins the expression in act 2, scene 2 of the play.

“Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief: your noble son is mad:

Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,

What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?

But let that go.”

The use of the phrase in the play shows that Polonius appreciates saying few words to display one’s intelligence. However, its use in the context of the scene is somewhat ironic. In the scene, Polonius goes on at length about his reasons for disliking Hamlet.

Phrases Similar to Brevity is the Soul of Wit

  • Short and sweet.
  • Sharp tongue.
  • Clever wit.

Phrases Opposite to Brevity is the Soul of Wit

  • Long-winded.
  • Boring and trivial.

What is the Correct Saying?

  • Brevity is the soul of wit.

Ways People May Say Brevity is the Soul of Wit Incorrectly

The phrase “brevity is the soul of wit” is not common in language, and most people won’t understand what you’re saying due to the archaic format of the phrase. As a result, it’s more common to see this saying in quotes online and on signs or posters in venues like comedy clubs.

Acceptable Ways to Phrase Brevity is the Soul of Wit

You can use the saying “brevity is the soul of wit” when you’re paying someone a compliment about their clever use of language for others’ amusement. The expression means that someone says something you find amusing, using as few words as possible. You could think of it as someone making a “quirky” response that incites amusement in others. The saying suits professional and social use. However, since it’s an archaic language, you won’t hear it very often.

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