12 September 2021

The Greeks have a word
for it (23) Laconic

Laconic wit is a form of pithy wit that is unique to classical Greece … classical images on pottery in a shop in Rethymnon(Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Needless to say, Western humour theory begins with Plato. In the Philebus, Plato attributes to Socrates the view that the essence of the ridiculous is an ignorance in the weak, who are then unable to retaliate when ridiculed. Later, in the Poetics, Aristotle suggests that an ugliness that does not disgust is fundamental to humour.

One type of humour that is unique to the classical Greek world is laconic wit, which could be paired with Attic Salt, meaning pointed and delicate wit.

A laconic phrase is a concise or terse statement, especially a blunt and elliptical rejoinder. It is named after Laconia, the region of Greece that includes the city of Sparta. The people of Sparta had a reputation for verbal austerity and were famous for their blunt and often pithy remarks.

After invading southern Greece and receiving the submission of other key city-states, Philip II of Macedon turned his attention to Sparta and asked menacingly whether he should come as friend or foe.

The Spartan reply was ‘Neither.’

Losing patience, he sent the message: ‘If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.’

The Spartans again replied with a single word: ‘If.’

Herodotus records two examples from the Battle of Thermopylae. Before battle began, a Persian general boasted, ‘our arrows will block out the sun!’ The Spartans replied nonchalantly, ‘Then we will fight in the shade.’

When a Persian commander demanded that the Spartans lay down their weapons, they told him, ‘Come and take them!’

Polycratidas was one of many Spartans sent on a diplomatic mission to some Persian generals. When they were asked whether they came in a private or a public capacity, he answered, ‘If we succeed, public; if not, private.’

A modern example of a laconic response comes in an apocryphal story about a linguistics professor. ‘In English,’ he told his class, ‘a double negative forms a positive. However, in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative remains a negative. But there isn’t a single language, not one, in which a double positive can express a negative.’

A voice from the back of the room piped up, ‘Yeah, right.’

Examples can be found in Wexford and other parts of Ireland. Be sure nothing is going to happen if you ask someone whether they are going to do something and they say, ‘I will, yeah.’

Yesterday: Hygiene

Tomorrow: Telephone

Attic salt is a form of humour and wit unique to classical Greece … salt on the table at Kyria Maria restarant in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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