December 19, 2003

Let the witty put-downs begin

In news from the Middle East, it is rare that we ever see events of violence and death replaced, even for just a few minutes, by outbreaks of spontaneous wit and harmless linguistic repartee. But news services reported yesterday that in Tikrit about 700 people had rallied to protest the arrest of Saddam Hussein. They chanted, "Saddam is in our hearts, Saddam is in our blood!", and back came an answering chant, rising from the soldiers and police that they were chanting at: "Saddam is in our jail, Saddam is in our jail!"

If only all battles could be fought with nothing more cruel than mocking phrases and cutting epithets. According to Alex Ross in this week's New Yorker, Oscar Wilde once made a prescient prediction about how wars of the future would be fought: "A chemist on each side will approach the frontier with a bottle." If only it could be a comedian from each side approaching the frontier armed only with stingingly witty epigrams and snappy verbal put-downs. Weapons of mass detraction.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 19, 2003 08:06 PM