Brevity is the soul of wit

This was already a proverb in Shakespeare s time. In his Hamlet we find the first record of it in literature. Old Polonius is giving King Claudius and Queen Gertrude his opinion of the mental condition of the Queen’s son, Hamlet. After saying that time should not be wasted on long preliminaries, he goes on:

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limb and outward flourishes
I will be brief. Your noble son mad …

It will be seen that ‘wit’ in this context does not mean ‘humour’ but ‘intelligence, understanding’ in the sense of knowing how to pass on information. When we use the expression we mean ‘wit’ in its other sense, which is the power to expres oneself in a clever, humorous way.

A witty remark of retort is all the better for being short. Here is an example:

‘How would you like your hair cut, sir?’ asked the talkative hairdresser.

‘If possible in silence,’ replied the customer.