Wednesday Words: The Perfect Comeback

“The only gracious way to accept an insult is to ignore it; if you can’t ignore it, top it; if you can’t top it, laugh at it; if you can’t laugh at it, it’s probably deserved.”  – J.Russel Lynes

Nancy Astor

The story has been told many times.  Nancy Astor, the first female member of British parliament, so disliked Prime Minister Winston Churchill that she once shouted at him, “If you were my husband, I’d put poison in your coffee.”  Churchill, a master of wit, quickly responded, “If you were my wife, I’d drink it.”  Now that’s a comeback.

There are times we desperately wish that the perfect words would all come together in a flash of brilliance and pour forth out of our mouths with all the bite we wish to deliver to an offending party.  If you’re like me, however, the Perfect Comeback usually arrives at my brain hours after the train has left the station.  “Ooh, I should have said…!” but I didn’t.

The Perfect Comeback can take the sting out of another’s rudeness, repay someone for an ill done to you, or just settle a score.  It is different from an insult, in that it is a reaction to what has come immediately before.  You can’t prepare.  Which makes the Perfect Comeback all the more wonderful when aptly delivered.


Although you have to be careful:  In high school, I was once insulted in the school cafeteria, and the Perfect Comeback managed to float right off my tongue and sting that ol’ meanie like a swarm of wasps.  I was feeling pretty dang proud of myself.  I stood taller, turned to strut out, and promptly ran into a large column.  Humility returned.

So what are some of the best comebacks of all time?  Winston Churchill was so good at these that I could fill the entire post with some of his zingers.  But I will give my Top 10 List with some variation:

Young Churchill

10.     In his early career, Winston Churchill attended a meeting at which another parliament member gave a long-winded speech. Churchill closed his eyes to fall asleep.  Seeing Churchill’s behavior, the speaker became angry and shouted: “Mr. Churchill, must you fall asleep while I’m speaking?”  Churchill merely replied:  “No, it’s purely voluntary.”


Bill Clinton

9.       Just after the 1992 Republication National Convention, Vice President Dan Quayle revealed that he planned to be “a pit bull” in the upcoming campaign against the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton and running mate Al Gore.  When asked for his reaction, Clinton replied: “That’s got every fire hydrant in America worried.”


Fritz Hollings

8.       During a television debate against incumbent U.S. Senator Fritz Hollings in 1986, Republican candidate Henry McMaster challenged his opponent’s fitness for office by suggesting he take a drug test.  Hollings quickly answered, “I’ll take a drug test, if you’ll take an IQ test.”


Shaw, Belloc & Chesterton

7.       Writer G.K. Chesterton was a corpulent man and playwright George Bernard Shaw was rather thin.  Once upon running into each other, Chesterton eyed Shaw and stated, “Looking at you, one would think there was a famine in the land.”  Shaw replied, “Looking at you, one would think you caused it.”


Muhammed Ali

6.       Muhammad Ali was known for his arrogance.  He once took a flight on Eastern Airlines in the 1970s. As a flight attendant made her final checks, she noticed that Ali failed to fasten his seat belt.  She asked him to buckle up, but Ali answered, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.”  The flight attendant smartly replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane either.”


Justice Jeffreys

5.       After James II assumed the throne following his brother Charles II’s death in 1685, Charles’s son led a rebellion against the new king.  The insurrection failed, however, and the rebels were brought to trial before Chief Justice George Jeffreys.  At one point in the trial, the judge thrust his cane in the chest of one of the rebels and charged, “There is a rogue at the end of my cane!”  Facing death on the gallows, the defendant probably figured this was his last chance for a great comeback and thus asked, “At which end, my Lord?”


Winston Churchill

4.       The Conservative Winston Churchill once entered a men’s room to find Clement Attlee, leader of the Labor Party, standing at the urinal. Churchill took a position at the other end of the trough.  “Feeling standoffish today, are we, Winston?” Attlee asked.  “That’s right,” Churchill answered.  “Every time you see something big, you want to nationalize it.”


Babe Ruth

3.       In 1930 and 1931, George Herman “Babe” Ruth was the highest paid major leaguer, bringing in $80,000.  Despite an astounding year in 1931 (.373 batting average, 46 home runs, 163 RBIs), Yankee officials asked Babe to reduce his salary to $75,000 for the 1932 season, in the midst of the Great Depression. Ruth held out. At a press conference, a reporter pointed out that $80,000 was $5,000 more than President Herbert Hoover’s salary.  Ruth famously retorted:  “Maybe so, but I had a better year than he did.”


Tracy & Hepburn

2.       Despite the fact that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn had a long-lasting relationship both on and off the screen, it got off to a rocky start in their first film Woman of the Year (1942).  The tall Ms. Hepburn haughtily said upon meeting the stocky Mr. Tracy, “I’m afraid I’m a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy.”  Spencer Tracy retorted, “Not to worry, Ms. Hepburn, I’ll soon cut you down to size.”


Mark Twain

1.       Mark Twain was quick-witted at every turn, and once again in a debate with a polygamist, Twain’s words trumped his opponent.  Having argued the issue of polygamy for some time, the polygamist Mormon forcefully asked, “Can you cite a single passage of scripture which forbids polygamy?”  Twain responded, “Certainly.  No man can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24, by the way.) 


If you want to read more about perfect comebacks, check out the following websites:

Political Comebacks:  The Art of the Putdown

Top 10 Best Comebacks

History’s Greatest Replies

Famous Retorts

Also, I highly recommended Viva La Repartee by Dr. Mardy Goethe.  He has done extensive research into witty comebacks across history and does an excellent job of relating them in a quick read.

Now what are you favorite comebacks?  Did you ever deliver a Perfect Comeback?  How did that feel?  How was it received?  (Did you actually say, “Bazinga!”?)  What do you think is necessary for the Perfect Comeback?

18 thoughts on “Wednesday Words: The Perfect Comeback

  1. Not quite the same thing, I suppose. As a teenager I went to my friend's house and her much older brother and his girlfriend were there. As my friend and I headed up the stairs to her room, the brother called out "You should take me home to meet your mother." Being more than a little naive, I took him literally and responded "No, she's much too old for you."It was only his girlfriend's gasp and giggle that alerted me to the fact that I'd accidentally made a great comeback.

  2. Ha! I seem to only be able to think of real zingers when I write them. I can zing anyone via email :)…probably because I get time to think. These were fun to read.

  3. Oooh! I do have one! It's easy to zing my husband, actually. LOL! What is it about marriage that inspires good banter? Hehe. Anyway, my husband enjoys Gin & Tonic as his drink of choice. The other day he said, "I may have to switch to vodka tonics, I read that gin kills more brain cells than any other liquor." To which I replied, "Oh honey. I wouldn't worry about that. You need to HAVE brain cells to begin with if you're going to kill them." Zing! 🙂 My in-laws were visiting and heard me say it. His mom got quite the giggle out of it. Sometimes I'm so funny.

  4. Good one, Annie-Mhairi! Yes, we count accidentally zingers. :)@Erin – So funny! And now that you mentioned it, I have to share my husband zinging me the other day! He was coaching my driving, shall we say, and I finally said in frustration, "Why I don't know how I ever managed to drive before I met you, since I was apparently as stupid as can be!" To which he replied, "I wouldn't say that honey. You weren't stupid, just ignorant." :p

  5. I LOVE great comebacks but, alas, they always come to me after the moment is over! I enjoyed this post and laughed! The best ones were definitely the Winston Churchill lines!Thanks.Patti

  6. Okay I have one- in high school this boy Marc came up to me before class and said quite loudly. "Hey Alica I saw you with your boyfriend earlier. If you ever want to date a real man let me know." I batted my eyes and said, "Why Marc I didn't know you knew any real men."I was very proud of myself. Now I need re-writes to get the perfect line.

  7. Good one, Alica! It's really fun to zing a smart-aleck man in that situation.We writers can always give our fictional characters a brilliant, spontaneous comeback . . . after we've spent hours coming up with it!

  8. I rarely have the perfect comeback in real life. But I'm pretty good at dreaming what I'd say, and I've learned to write it down as soon as I wake. Who knows? Maybe I'll get to use it in the future. Funny post! Thanks Julie!

  9. This was a fun post. I really enjoyed it. I have been known to come up with some zingers in my time. I always feel guilty afterward. The look of embarrassed hurt on the other person's face–no matter what they said elicit my comment–is too much for my conscience. Like you said in your post, the first few seconds afterglow are great…after that, not so much. LOL

  10. I loved this Julie! I definitely giggled aloud. I am so horrible at comebacks. Of course, I think of something hours/days/years after the fact, but nothing at the moment of need. Winston Churchill is my new idol. 🙂

  11. I specifically have to respond to Catie because I agree that I feel bad if say something terrible to someone – just about no matter what. But I tried to focus on comebacks instead of insults. Unprovoked nastiness is just that – nastiness. On the other hand, sometimes a verbal wollop is a far better choice than the smack upside the head you might wish to deliver to an offensive person. Just sayin'.

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