This proverb was coined by the playwright William Shakespeare. In his work, ‘Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’ (usually dated around 1599), the courtier Polonius says in Act II ‘brevity is the soul of wit’.
Polonius’ character is that of a pedantic person who likes to talk at length and use plenty of proverbs and portentous sayings. Thus, when it first appeared, this phrase had an ironic usage – Polonius usually does not speak briefly at all!
Meaning and Explanation
‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ means that ‘speaking briefly is essential if we want to be clever or humorous.’
In the Renaissance, ‘brevity’ meant something like ‘conciseness’. And ‘wit’ had several meanings. In the context of this proverb, ‘wit’ means either ‘cleverness’ or ‘humorousness’.
Attesting brevity as the ‘soul’ of wit suggests that conciseness is right at the heart of speaking well.
In short, this proverb is admonishing people that if they want to tell a good joke or come across as clever or wise, they ought to ensure that they do not ramble on.
Staying right on topic, and getting straight to the point are, according to this proverb, essential aspects of good rhetoric!
This proverb is relevant to so many different contexts. From asking a question in class to giving someone directions, adhering to the notion that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ enables us to get our message across perfectly.
Importance of the proverb.
1. Telling jokes: It’s so important to keep your audience spellbound when telling a good joke. So don’t let them get bored – follow Polonius’ advice!
2. Respecting others’ time: Learning to speak concisely enables us to respect others’ time more. We take up less of their time when we get right to the point.
3. Explaining ourselves clearly: Whether we are giving a restaurant order or telling a classroom full of people what the homework is going to be, speaking concisely is very important if we want to make ourselves clear.
4. Persuasion: Being a good rhetorician enables us to be more persuasive. Politicians and brands use catchphrases and slogans all the time. These short, punchy phrases encapsulate the idea that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’.
5. Choosing the right words: Sometimes, a shorter email or letter is harder to write than a long and rambling one. That is because when we write something short and concise, we need to choose the perfect words. Writing something brief and well thought out is often a great way of showing someone that we care about communicating with them, as we have clearly taken time to think about and edit what we have to say, instead of just typing whatever comes into our mind before hitting ‘send’.
6. In the workplace: When giving directions or communicating professionally, brevity is certainly appreciated. Our co-workers generally want to know what it is they need to do, and what the priorities are.
7. Creative writing: Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that poetry is ‘the best words in the best order’, and this proverb demonstrates how brevity can be a virtue in poetic language too.
Try and apply this proverb in your everyday life – it can take a little extra thought and effort, but it can also really improve your communication skills.