Dorothy Parker, whose epigrams include: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Associated Press

One of my favorite elements of language is the epigram. An often witty, sometimes profound saying that is tersely expressed, some of history’s best writers have penned some of the most memorable epigrams. And for that reason, I’m stepping aside this week to let several of those writers make my case for everyone getting better acquainted with the epigram.

Let’s start out by stealing a quick glance at some blondes. “Blond” is the color of a man’s or woman’s hair, while “blonde” describes a person — often a woman — who has blond hair. To quote mystery writer Raymond Chandler, “It was a blonde. Blonde enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window.”

Another good example of the epigram is Oscar Wilde’s observation that “Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.”

Wilde’s mastery of the epigram was such that even the witty Dorothy Parker conceded defeat in verse, writing:

“If with the literate, I am

Impelled to try an epigram

I never seek to take the credit

We all assume that Oscar said it.”

No slouch herself with witty sayings, Parker once famously asked, “What’s the difference between an enzyme and a hormone?” And answered, “You can’t hear an enzyme.” Another gem is her sarcastic look at the wonders of spring: “Every year, back comes spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off, and the ground all mucked up with plants.”

Parker also warned that not all attempts at humor are witty, noting, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.”

The late John Updike proved his wittiness when he played upon the difference between “boar” and “bore” by noting: “A healthy adult male bore consumes each year one-and-a-half times his own weight in other people’s patience.”

No glance at epigrams would be complete without hearing from Mark Twain, who famously noted that “Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.” What a good example.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that some of today’s tweets would be considered epigrams. While our president is well known for his tweets, a simple and positive one I like is from former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who tweeted this after returning from a nearly fatal shooting: “The Capitol looks beautiful and I am honored to be at work tonight.”


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