Wit – it’s not just for dinner party banter anymore. In his new book, “Wit’s End,” journalist James Geary argues that wit is a necessary quality of mind for navigating our complicated world.
“Wit is essential to making jokes and making quips, but it’s also essential to all kinds of creativity,” Geary says.
One of the keys to wit, he says, is finding connections between seemingly disparate or even contradictory ideas. “Wit involves being alert to how things can be interrelated.”
Geary says being witty is within anyone’s grasp.
Here are some of Geary’s tips for sharpening your tongue – and your mind:
1. Deliberately misunderstand people
Our brains are so good at correctly interpreting common phrases, it happens automatically without us noticing.
But if you listen closely, you’ll find that language is often very vague. Exploit ambiguity for situational comedy: Next time someone struggling with a large box asks for a hand, respond by clapping. “I try not to do that one too often, because it annoys people,” Geary says.
2. Practice making puns
Puns are a great way to train your mind to make unlikely connections, Geary says. Try getting a few friends together and then take turns making puns around a particular category.
For instance, if you start with “animals,” you might say, “Let me otter here” or “I’m a little horse.” The jokes don’t have to be good, but they have to come quickly.
If you hesitate, you’re out.
“Practicing puns has a lasting effect because it trains your brain to be staying alert to these kind of hidden correspondences – in words, but also in life,” Geary says.
3. Quiet your inner critic
A key to being witty is to let your mind play, to free-associate without judgment, Geary says. For example, when Abraham Lincoln got a letter asking him to suspend the sentence of a man who was about to be hanged, the president famously quipped, “If I don’t suspend it tonight, the man will surely be suspended tomorrow.”
To make this joke, Lincoln had to let his mind wander to a different meaning of suspend, even though it was seemingly irrelevant to the matter at hand. “It’s important not to be critical at the beginning because that’s how the ideas arise,” Geary says.
4. Shut down humour snobs
Silly wordplay abounds in all kinds of classic literature. Shakespeare’s plays are full of puns and James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” is “a 600-plus-page novel made up almost entirely of macaronic (mixed-language) puns,” Geary notes.
So if your family complains about all your terrible new jokes, simply explain that you’re working your way up to writing the great American novel.
5. Buy Geary’s book
“Read it from cover to cover. That’s the most important thing,” he says. “No, I’m kidding, of course. But not really.”