Miaow! Classic smackdowns

There are those (generally those who can't make them) who say that puns are the lowest form of wit. By contrast, as we all know, the highest form of wit is slagging other people off.

"Pubic hair is no substitute for wit."
- J. B. Priestley

And how right he was. Throughout human history, the sharpest and wittiest people who ever lived have used their talents almost exclusively to rip the piss out of other people. Meanwhile, those unable to think of something witty and sarcastic to say for themselves, merely repeat what others have said. And I'm no exception. So herewith some of my favourite curmudgeonly quips and verbal GBH through the ages.

  • Edward Abbey:

    A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.

  • I'm forced to agree with J.W. Eagan:

    Never judge a book by its movie.

  • The ever-gloomy Heinrich Heine:

    There are more fools in the world than there are people.

  • H.L. Mencken:

    Say what you will about the ten commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.

  • I know how Joe E. Lewis feels:

    I went on a diet, swore off drinking and heavy eating, and in fourteen days I lost two weeks.

  • Groucho Marx:

    Outside of a dog, a book is your best friend, and inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

  • Maryon Pearson:

    Behind every successful man there is a surprised woman.

  • Tom Shales, on Farrah Fawcett (as she then was):

    Maybe it's the hair. Maybe it's the teeth. Maybe it's the intellect. No, it's the hair.

  • Clement Freud's synopsis of Margaret Thatcher:

    Attila the Hen.

  • Gore Vidal, on Truman Capote:

    A great zircon in the diadem of American literature.

  • Robert Orben:

    Never raise your hand to your children. It leaves your midsection unprotected.

  • Mark Twain:

    I should like to live in Manchester, England. The transition between Manchester and death would be unnoticeable.

  • Irving Layton (on Pierre Trudeau):

    At last Canada has produced a political leader worthy of assassination.

  • Truman Capote's oft-quoted (but nonetheless keen-edged) comment on Jack Kerouac:

    That's not writing, that's typing.

  • It's hard to agree with Cyril Asquith's opinion of Paul Klee, but you sort of know what he means:

    His pictures seem to resemble not pictures, but a sample book of patterns of linoleum.

  • Sydney Smith, on visiting the Middle East:

    The departure of the Wise Men seems to have been on a more extensive scale than is generally supposed, since no one of that description appears to have been left behind.

  • Thomas Babington Macaulay, on Socrates:

    The more I read him, the less I wonder that they poisoned him.

  • F.E. Smith, to a friend who complained of an "'orrible 'eadache'":

    What you need, my dear chap, is a couple of aspirates.

  • Ken Livingstone, on his often over-excited press coverage:

    If I blow my nose, the tabloid papers would say I'm trying to spread germ warfare.

  • Former Australian PM Gough Whitlam, responding to a heckler who enquired about his policy on abortion:

    Well, in your case it should be retrospective.

  • Michael Howard, on Neil Kinnock (before the 1992 election):

    As a pretender to the nation's driving seat, he has some notable qualifications. He loves reverse gear. His three-point turns are masterly. And as for his principles, he never sets out without a complete set of spares.

  • Tim Renton, replying to a question from Dennis Skinner asking how many civil servants were (a) men, or (b) women:

    All of them.

  • Samuel Butler:

    Some men love truth so much that they seem to be in continual fear lest she should catch a cold on overexposure.

  • Reginald Maudling, on being replaced in the Shadow Cabinet by a man four years his senior:

    There comes a time in every man's life when he must make way for an older man.

  • Ian Fleming:

    Most marriages don't add two people together. They subtract one from the other.

  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn:

    Their teacher had advised them not to read Tolstoy novels, because they were very long and would easily confuse the clear ideas which they had learned from reading critical studies of him.

  • Barrister and wit F.E. Smith was the master of the snappy comeback. His reply to the judge who declared that Smith's remarks had left him none the wiser:

    Not wiser, my Lord. But better informed.

  • Adlai Stevenson (who ought to know):

    A politician is a man who approaches every problem with an open mouth.

  • Oscar Wilde:

    Friendship is more tragic than love. It lasts longer.

  • Coleridge:

    Frenchmen are like grains of gunpowder - each by itself smutty and contemptible, but mass them together and they are terrible indeed.

  • General Sheridan:

    If I owned Texas and Hell, I'd rent out Texas and live in Hell.

  • Eighteenth-century radical John Wilkes, when told that he would certainly die either on the gallows or from the pox:

    That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

  • Winston Churchill describing Clement Attlee:

    A sheep in sheep's clothing.

  • Oscar Wilde believed in killing two writers with one stone:

    Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning.

  • Celebrated curmudgeon F.E. Smith, when asked how he would like his hair cut:

    In silence.

  • Gerald Kaufman, of John Major:

    The thing about Mrs Thatcher was, there was a character to assassinate.

  • Historian, wit and amiable rake Alan Clark, when asked where he read history:

    In an armchair.

  • Barry Goldwater, on Senator Hubert Humphrey:

    He talks so fast that listening to him is like trying to read Playboy with your wife turning the pages.

  • Denis Healey, on Ronald Reagan's economic record:

    He has done for monetarism what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.

  • An anonymous MP, on one of Ian Paisley's speeches:

    He should have it published posthumously - and the sooner the better.

  • And another sadly anonymous comment, this time on Gordon Brown:

    He's lost his marble.

  • Beethoven, to a less illustrious fellow composer:

    I liked your opera. I think I will set it to music.

  • Charles Dickens, on a book of verse pretentiously entitled 'Orient Pearls at Random Strung':

    Too much string.

  • Dorothy Parker, when told that socialite Clare Boothe Luce was invariably kind to her inferiors:

    Where does she find them?

  • Groucho Marx to a hapless author:

    "From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."

  • Writer and director Jean Cocteau held unambiguous views on Hollywood's application of new technology to film-making:

    "Cinemascope? The next time I write a poem I shall use a larger piece of paper."

  • And Curmudgeon-General Dr Johnson applied this crushing put-down to some unfortunate who laughed a little too loudly at one of Johnson's remarks:

    "What provokes you to risibility, Sir? Have I said anything that you understand? Then I ask the pardon of the rest of the company."