Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Double-Edged Brevity

It is when I struggle to be brief that I become obscure.
     [Horace, Odes]
Brevity carries Shakespeare’s weighty imprimatur in that famous saying of his in Hamlet: “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Wit is one of those curious words. Webster’s still tenaciously clings to the word’s traditional meaning (Mind, Memory) at least in the ranking of its definitions. It gives us today’s common understanding of that word—as humor—only in 3b of its definitions, and then only in paraphrase: “the ability to relate seemingly disparate things so as to illuminate or amuse.”

Along the way, usually in doctor’s waiting rooms—no, actually, usually a few hours after the visit—I became aware of another aspect of brevity. Brevity is light. It has no gravitas. It flies away. You still encounter in waiting rooms The Reader’s Digest, one of the milestones heading to the sound byte, and there’s no better way to while away the tedium than by reading its various featured pages of jokes. They amuse. They’re always brief, one or two lines or one or two brief paragraphs only—just enough to tease you in one direction, to commit you to one line of thought—only to jerk the carpet out from under you by shifting the meaning of words or the situations described to another equally acceptable meaning. Then the mental energy you gathered up getting to the punch line is suddenly released in a laugh or a chuckle. And that’s the witty way—to amuse. But while making mental notes to “remember this one,” the next joke immediately follows, tempting the eye. And later, getting home, ready to tell the good ones to the family, I find that they have fled my mind, one and all. Some few people have a talent for remembering jokes. Then in turn they become walking pages of the Digest. What they tend to forget, however, is that they’ve already told that one multiple times already over the years…

Jokes are clear enough or they fall flat. But brevity in other contexts has the problem that Horace identified. They may be rendered memorably enough, but represent such extreme compressions of meaning as to be obscure. And herein lies one of virtues or vices (take your choice) of sound bytes and of slogans. They’re short enough to remember easily—but they hide so many facts in two or three words that they compel the agreement of people who, if they knew the facts and issues laid out in detail, would start to wonder and to shake their heads.

Brevity is best in an introduction or a summary to a more complete presentation of the issues. The brief summary then serves as an aid to memory of all those details that should be kept in mind. And brevity, of course, is ideal, indeed indispensible, in jokes. When brevity is lacking in that sphere, we start thinking of shaggy dogs.

All this came to mind when, this morning, I wrote the following pair of sentence in an e-mail. Mind you, the text simply rolled out of my fingers—and only after I was done did I realize that I’d said something witty. What such a snippet hides will occupy contemporary historians for years—or not—all depending how things actually develop. Here is that pair of sentences:
The ultimate meaning of this election is that a huge wedge has been driven right though the middle of the GOP. Unless the spilled tea dries white on all those starched shirts, the Republicans will be rent from within.


  1. I admire brevity when it is used to highlight and clarify, as your wonderful analogies so often do. A delightful image, that of spilled tea on starched shirts...

  2. We have seen it all before: bold new approaches, and parties rent by radical divisions. That was history and in the past and it got us precisely to here.

    Exactly why this will get us to a different place is not clear to me.