William Shakespeare? Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Winston Churchill? Abby Buchanan Longstreet? Frank Fay? Pierre de Roman? Joey Adams? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a collection of similar jokes based on word play and the terms: battle, armed, wit, and half-wit. Here are some examples:
1) I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.
2) Never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.
3) Never, ever, enter a battle of wits half-armed.
4) In a battle of wits he comes only half prepared to the battle.
The first of these has been attributed to the luminary William Shakespeare. But I have searched his oeuvre and this statement was absent. Versions of the popular quip have been attached to the powerful quotation magnets Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that the Bard of Avon penned this jest. Attributions to Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill are also unsupported. The earliest evidence of comparable word play located by QI appeared in an 1866 novel which the author, Abby Buchanan Longstreet, released under a pseudonym. Longstreet described a character blushing and then employed an instance of the trope. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The blood swung its reddest pennant out over the boy’s cheeks, but Trissilian’s mood was not to be resented, or resisted. A battle of wits was to be fought, and the Boy in Blue was unarmed to-night.
Because this witticism can be expressed in many ways searching for it was difficult. Hence, earlier examples probably do exist. QI hopes this article provides a useful sampling for readers and future researchers.
In December 1927 a thematically connected quip appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper. But this item did not reference a battle or armaments: 2
He—Mabel says she thinks I’m a wit.
She—Well, she’s half right.
In December 1928 Walter Winchell’s widely-distributed gossip column printed an instance of the joke. The punch line was credited to the comedian and actor Frank Fay who was engaged in a sharp disagreement with an interior decorator: 3
“Mr. Fay, is this going to be a battle of wits?”
“If it is,” was the indifferent retort, “you have come unarmed!”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In March 1929 a comedy called “Meet the Prince” by A. A. Milne was staged in New York. Milne is best known today as the author of the children’s book “Winnie the Pooh”. A theater review in a Virginia newspaper bylined with the name Pierre de Roman pronounced a harsh judgment on Milne’s play. De Roman described a dialog scene between two characters: 4
They meet, of course, gasp so they can be heard in the last row of the balcony, and engage in what might have been described as a battle of wits were it not that the playwright has left them both unarmed for such an encounter.
In July 1929 the “Goblin” periodical of Toronto, Canada was acknowledged for the following comical dialog: 5
He—It’s to be a battle of wits.
She—How brave of you, Gerald, to go unarmed!
In 1937 an opulent fashion-spectacle film titled “Vogues of 1938” was reviewed in the “New York Times” and the reviewer used a version of the joke: 6
Alan Mowbray nicely caricatures the plight of a man entering a battle of wits half equipped…
In 1938 the quip was transmitted via another avenue of expression. The comic strip “The Gumps” by Gus Edson included the following line: 7
HA-HA—IN A BATTLE OF WITS, ANDY’S THE BRAVEST OF THE BRAVE—ANYBODY WHO WOULD WALK OUT ON A BATTLEFIELD UNARMED LIKE THAT DESERVES THE UNDYING RESPECT OF THE NATION!
In 1941 a paper in Alton, Illinois called the “Western Military Academy Shrapnel” printed a variant based on the terms “half-armed” and “half-wit”: 8
Woosley to Barta: “You’re so brave that you’ll enter a battle of wits only half-armed.”
Barta to Woosley: “And you are the other part of the half-wit.”
In 1951 an El Paso, Texas newspaper printed an article about college professors that included the following remark: 9
Then there are those who keep up a running battle of wits with their students, which isn’t such a feat, considering that most students aren’t over half-armed.
In 1952 the volume “Joey Adams’ Joke Book” discussed the techniques that comedians used to respond to hecklers: 10
When are they going to learn that in a battle of wits they have no ammunition, while the pro is prepared for battle!
In conclusion, this jest has numerous variants, and it has been evolving for many years. Instances have been attached to several famous names, e.g., William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill. But no supporting citations have been found, and false attributions to these individuals are notoriously commonplace.
The genesis appears to have been anonymous though QI thinks it is reasonable to credit Abby Buchanan Longstreet with an early example of the idea and Frank Fay with an instance similar to modern versions.
Image Notes: “Paris 2010 – Le Penseur” from Daniel Stockman Flickr stream via Wikimedia Commons; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Image has been cropped. Brain illustration from OpenClips on Pixabay. William Shakespeare image known as the ‘Chandos portrait’ via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Victor Steinbok, dalena, Marian T. Wirth, and Laurelyn Collins whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to ADS discussion participants Victor Steinbok, Jonathan Lighter, Benjamin Zimmer, and Bill Mullins. Special thanks to Bill for locating the 1937 citation and to Ben for identifying the form of the 1927 citation.)
- 1866, Remy St. Remy, Or: The Boy in Blue by Mrs. C. H. Gildersleeve (Abby Buchanan Longstreet), Quote Page 236, Published by James O’Kane, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1927 December 30, The Tyrone Daily Herald, Merry Moments: Half One, Anyway, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Tyrone, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1928 December 12, Lexington Herald, The Diary of a New Yorker by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Lexington, Kentucky. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1929 March 3, Richmond Times-Dispatch, New Milne Comedy So Sugary It Comes Close to Burlesque by Pierre de Roman, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1929 July 24, Trenton Evening Times, Maybe She Meant Well (From the Goblin, Toronto), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1937 August 20, New York Times, The Screen: ‘Vogues’ of the Future Opens at the Music Hall, Quote Page 21, Column, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1938 November 15, The Helena Independent, The Independent’s Daily Page of Comics, Comic Strip: The Gumps: Just a Careful Guy by Gus Edson, Quote Page 10, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1941 June 5, Western Military Academy Shrapnel, Bits of Shrapnel, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Alton, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1951 March 10, The Prospector (El Paso Prospector), A Word to the Wise: Great Minds Seek Solution To Baffling Enigma: College Prof by Chester McLaughlin, Quote Page 2, Column 4, El Paso, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1952, Joey Adams’ Joke Book by Joey Adams, Quote Page 63, Frederick Fell, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩