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.
- 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) ↩