‘Wit’s End’ by James Geary

Wit’s End is a lighthearted and devilishly clever book by author and journalist James Geary that explores just about every possible facet of what wit actually is and how you can learn the art of being witty yourself:

Wit is often thought of as simply being funny. But wit is more than just having a knack for snappy comebacks. There is the serendipitous wit of scientists, the crafty wit of inventors, the optical wit of artists, the improvisational wit of musicians, and the metaphysical wit of philosophers. Wit is the quick, instinctive intelligence that allows us to think, say or do the right thing at the right time in the right place.

James Geary explores every facet of wittiness, bringing the subject to life by writing each chapter in a style that exemplifies a different kind of wit. The chapter on witty verbal repartee is written as a dramatic dialogue; the chapter on the neuroscience of wit is written as a scientific paper; the chapter on the spirituality of wit is written as a sermon. There are also sections written in jive, rap and the heroic couplets of Alexander Pope.

Wit’s End shows how wit is a state of mind as well as a sense of humor and why wit and wisdom are really the same thing.

You know how explaining a joke kills all the humor of it? Well somehow, Geary deftly manages to teach the craft of wittiness without boring the reader or making the subject unfun. He’s got a real knack for storytelling, and he makes use of every literary trick in the book to keep your mind engaged and picking things up you maybe knew in the back of your mind but never had words for.

Geary made a fun little promo video for the book:

Two things I recommend reading are this excerpt from the book in defense of puns:

Through deft juxtapositions like this, puns reveal previously unseen relations among things. This reordering of ordinary associations, this upsetting of the apple cart of expectations, affords the mind sudden alternative points of view on subjects and situations it thought it knew.


The pun is at once the most profound and the most pedestrian example of wit at work.

…and Ephrat Livni’s post-read report that wit is a learnable skill:

Still, we needn’t wait for a breakthrough in brain science to cultivate wit ourselves. First, just knowing that wit is a kind of associative process already makes you better equipped to be a verbal gymnast. And Geary lays out a variety of kinds of wit, showing the way this play manifests—puns, rhyme, metaphor, slang, rap, to name a few—in a book that is itself an exercise in wit.

Geary’s book is proof positive that being creative about language takes practice and can be mastered. It’s not just a natural talent.

Get the book in these formats: