Brevity is the Soul of Wits, Tweets and Twits

Brevity is the Soul of Wits, Tweets and Twits

In Hamlet, it is Polonious who utters the famous and frequently quoted line, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  While in the play this remark evokes ironic humor because it is only one line of many that Polonius spews during a sprawling, cautionary speech to his son Laertes, the remark itself is something of a universal truth, and anyone who appreciates wit knows this to be the case.  Wit hinges on concision, pith and point, minimizing word count while maximizing meaning and impact.

A few months back, during an interview with Maureen Dowd, one of the founders of Twitter (attempting wit himself) summoned Polonius’ line as explanation in part for the 140-character limit imposed on tweets.  However, the paucity of clever tweets is a glaring reminder of just how difficult it is to achieve true wit.  

According to NYT Op-Ed Guest Columnist Ben Schott, in his most recent post Twittergraphy, 19th c. telegraphy was a precursor of sorts to today’s texting and tweeting.  He provides a chart of code words from “The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code” published in 1891: these individual words were used in place of phrases and questions in order to meet length restrictions for telegrams, which were apparently limited to 150 characters.  Many are amusing, but one I find particularly interesting, if not noisome, is “Crisp,” which meant, “Can you recommend to me a good female cook?”  So let me get this straight: if a bloke received a telegram that said “crisp,” that’s it, he would know to pay his kitchen staff a visit?  If that’s the case, the she chef should have a chance to ask a few questions of her own, such as is the solicitor “Weepful,” meaning “a man of great wealth”?, or “Insidiator,” meaning “how much is your life insured for?”  Whoever devised these code words proved that brevity can also be the soul of twits.

One Response to “Brevity is the Soul of Wits, Tweets and Twits”
  1. Stephen Tillman says:

    That’s amusing. I guess there really is nothing new under the sun; our text message abbreviations are merely an adaptation of early telegraphy. But considering text messages, I think numbers and symbols have further trimmed word count, breeding more concise and witty abbreviations like 1DR for “Wonder,” ^5 for “High Five,” L8R for “Later,” or w@ for “What.” (From

    For the sake of brevity, when texting I often try to use more powerful words instead of abbreviations because, unlike The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code, there is no fixed standard for the myriad of symbols, characters and abbreviations that many text messages consist of; I am sure the meaning of letters, numerals and signs differ among cliques. It’s amazing how we quarrel about almost everything except word usage and meaning. Someone should establish a standard, or oooh!… an official text dictionary!

    Just for fun:
    I’ve read in a fact book that S.O.S. pads were bestowed that name by the inventor’s wife. She thought it clever to bend the abbreviation for “Save Our Ships” to “Save Our Saucepans,” but it’s interesting to know that S.O.S. doesn’t stand for anything. When Samuel Morse created his code in the 1800s, he decided that there should be a short distress signal that all telegraphers could easily remember and type should they have to notify authorities of dangers at sea. In the Morse code, three dots represented an S and three dashes represented an O, therefore SOS became ideal, for its pattern short and memorable: …—…


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