Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

If you’re like me, you have, from time to time, encountered a situation that cried out for a snappy verbal comeback. But the comeback flashed in your mind a few minutes to a few hours too late and you could only sigh wistfully, “I wish I had thought of that line then.”

There’s actually a name for that feeling: esprit d’ l’escalier, from the French “spirit of the staircase.” The conjured image is of you, having ascended the staircase on your way to bed, long after the opportunity for a retort has passed.

One quality that marks many great men and women in politics and the arts is their ability to marshal language on the spot. Rather than pausing on the staircase minutes or hours after the juicy encounter, these luminaries respond instantly with the perfect rapier-like riposte that leaves their antagonists glassy-eyed with astonishment or embarrassment:

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Some collectors of verbal wit consider an exchange between Winston Churchill and George Bernard Shaw to be unsurpassed. Churchill and Shaw were among the most brilliant men of their time but inhabited opposite ends of the political spectrum. One day, Shaw sent Churchill an invitation that read, “Dear Mr. Churchill: Enclosed please find two tickets for the opening night of my play ‘Major Barbara.’ Please bring a friend — if you have one.”

Replied Churchill, “Dear GBS: I thank you very much for the invitation and tickets. Unfortunately, I am otherwise engaged on that night, but could I have tickets for the second night — if there is one?”

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Women have contributed their fair share of verbal payback. Writer, critic and humorist Dorothy Parker once arrived simultaneously at a narrow doorway with the playwright, journalist and politician Clare Boothe Luce.

“Age before beauty,” said Mrs. Luce, stepping aside.

“Pearls before swine,” purred Parker as she glided through the doorway.

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A member of Parliament confronted Prime Minster Benjamin Disraeli with “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease.”

“That depends, sir,” said Disraeli, “on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

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One evening, essayist and epistolarean G.K. Chesterton and several other literary figures were debating what book they would each prefer to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island. “The complete works of William Shakespeare,” said one writer without hesitation. “I’d choose the Bible,” broke in another.

“How about you?” someone asked Chesterton. Shot back the portly author: “I would choose ‘Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.’”

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Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt once demanded to know what Jewish violinist Fritz Kreisler would charge to play at a private musicale. When he named the hefty price of $5,000, she reluctantly agreed but added, “Please remember that you are not to mingle with the guests.”

“In that case, madam,” Kreisler assured her, “my fee will be only $2,000.”

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At a gathering, Noel Coward teased fellow writer Edna Ferber for wearing a tailored suit: “You look almost like a man.”

She sneered back, “So do you.”

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Writer and dictionary maker Samuel Johnson was once told, “You smell!”

“No,” Dr. Johnson corrected his accuser. “You smell. I stink!”

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Having begun our parade of resourceful repartee with Sir Winston Churchill, I choose to end the extravaganza with this zinger: At a weekend party, Churchill found himself seated next to Lady Nancy Astor, a longtime political foe who had fought him in House of Commons debates.

When coffee was served, the acid-tongued Nancy hissed, “Sir Winston, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

“Nancy,” the great man followed. “If I were your husband, I would drink it!”