Repartee is the very soul of conversation, so it is the greatest grace of comedy. - John Dryden
In the book, Amazing Grace - William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, by Eric Metaxas, I stumbled across a concept defining a behavior in my husband, Darryl, that I have struggled to explain many times during our 42 years of marriage. This behavior is unalterably stamped into his French DNA, an important fact that further corroborates my new understanding. Let me explain.
The book notes that William Wilberforce and his Goostree Gang were well-known for their repartee - the art of responding quickly, smoothly and pointedly in their interchanges. In fact, one of their favorite pastimes was trading quips - what they called "foyning," or "foining."
The term "to foin" - originally French - means to thrust, as with a rapier sword. "Foining" swordplay with lighter swords and rapiers had replaced the earlier kind of swordplay with broadswords, which involved cutting and slashing. So "to foin" meant to parry deftly and thrust with one's wits; the term "rapier wit" is a cousin of "foining." It was an era in which wit was greatly valued, and Wilberforce and his friends, all inveterate wits, were dubbed by Edward Eliot "the Foinsters." p. 28
A rapier is a straight two-edged sword with a narrow pointed blade used for thrusting - in contrast to the broadsword - a sword with a long blade used for cutting. So, to parry with the rapier sword in the context of foining - is to lunge at others with a kind of teasing wit which is imaginatively perceptive and articulate. The banter that follows this lunge evokes laughter - even the sidesplitting, rollicking kind - in appreciation of the verbal ingenuity it requires.
The sharper the rapier wit - the more ability there is to relate what appears to be seemingly disparate things. Rapier wit is a kind of genius with a special proclivity for the incongruous - combining two things which are not normally meant to be compatible with each other! This type of wit automatically captures attention, arouses interest, and amuses.
On the upside, when wit becomes a firmly entrenched habit in an individual like Darryl, who is naturally good at it and continues to sharpen it, this gift thrusts him into the realm of effective speaking and teaching. God has blessed Darryl over and over through the years - using wit to break down resistance, woo and illuminate - individuals as well as whole congregations. As I have looked on, I am certain it is prized today just as much as it was in Wilberforce's day. We love it, we are drawn to it, we want to be where it is happening! It is some of the best of what life has to offer!
On the downside, however, there is danger! When someone employs great wit and places strain on incongruity, the result can be unpredictable and may sometimes even lack propriety. People have often said to me, "I can't believe Darryl gets away with what he gets away with...!!!!" At those times, he is skating very near the edge of disaster but somehow manages to stay in good graces with people. I think it is because more times than not, he carries hearty fun and entertainment with him into social situations and the comedy he brings is not something any of us want to give up.
In my ongoing research on the subject of wit, I also found a term to describe a slightly irritating but nevertheless still affectionately endearing nuance of foining. It is a behavior in Darryl called persiflage - which means frivolous (lacking in seriousness - and may I add - often at the wrong times) bantering talk. Now, I just shake my head and smile benignly. My little Foinster!