Wednesday, September 27, 2023

'A Joker; One Who Breaks a Jest'

When I encountered the word witcracker in Much Ado About Nothing, I marked it for further use and found myself silently singing it to the tune of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof: “Witcracker, witcracker, / Make me a wit . . .” In Shakespeare’s Act V, Scene 4, Benedick, much in love with Beatrice, says to Don Pedro: 

“I’ll tell thee what, prince; a college of

wit-crackers cannot flout me out of my humour. Dost

thou think I care for a satire or an epigram? No:

if a man will be beaten with brains, a’ shall wear

nothing handsome about him.”


The OED defines witcracker as “one who makes witty or sarcastic remarks” and Dr. Johnson gives us “a joker; one who breaks a jest.” Shakespeare’s usage is the only one cited by both. It never caught on, which is a shame, though the OED also recognizes “wit-crack,”  defined as “the ‘cracking’ of a joke . . . a brisk witticism.” But why crack? It’s one of those words with dozens of meanings, the closest being “loud talk, boast, brag; hence, sometimes, exaggeration, lie.” Thus, we “crack” jokes and make “wisecracks,” a twentieth-century word.


Getting back to Shakespeare, I wondered about epigram, a favorite form. Dr. Johnson offers a memorable definition: “A short poem terminating in a point” – like a knife. The modern master is J.V. Cunningham, a deft witcracker:


“Hang up your weaponed wit

Who were destroyed by it.

If silence fails, then grace

Your speech with commonplace,

And studiously amaze

Your audience with his phrase.

He will commend your wit

When you abandon it.”

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