Twitter Aphorisms, Epigrams and Repartee

I recently encountered the following zinger on twitter:

@jayrosen_nyu: Scoble is like a guest at a hotel for one, where a huge staff is trying to anticipate his every need. And he’s angry.

Shades of noted wits from the past! As when Dorothy Parker, asked to use the word horticulture in a sentence, said “You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think” or when Nancy Astor said to Winston Churchill, “Winston, if I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee,” and he replied, “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it,” or less meanly, Oscar Wilde on his deathbed: “Either that wallpaper goes or I do.” (My all time favorite, from the collection Viva la repartee, tells how the Earl of Sandwich braced reformist politician John Wilkes with the insult, “Upon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows, or of the pox,” to which Wilkes cuttingly replied, “That will depend, my lord, on whether I embrace your principles, or your mistress.” Ouch!)

It occurred to me that twitter, with its 140 character limit, its dialogue between people who may be rivals as well as friends, is a breeding ground for the rebirth of repartee and of the aphorism and epigram.
So I started keeping track of some of these sparks of wit. Some of these are actual rejoinders; others are simply clever insights. Here are a few I’ve captured recently:

@sacca: You can’t really appreciate the vapidity of most people’s taste in music until you live directly above a traffic signal.

@tempo: Evolution is a sorting process that is the very antithesis of random. (in response to )

@davorg: Conference Driven Development – submitting talks to conferences so that it will galvanise you into doing the work you’re talking about.

@sourcegirl: procrastination is our brain’s way of saying that something is not as important as we may think it is…

@gstein: OH: isn’t a smoking area in a restaurant like a peeing area in a pool?

@amandachapel:@lisahoffmann “I’ve had conversations with people I never would have met otherwise.” Like hanging out at the bus terminal.

I only follow a few hundred people out of millions of twitter users, so I’m thinking that there must be tens of thousands of great lines waiting out there to be captured into a book of twitter one-liners. If you know of any, and want to share them, either tweet them to the attention of @timoreilly or leave them in the comments here. A book of twitter wit and wisdom would make a fun conference giveaway, don’t you think?

Keep in mind that, as Aristotle said, “Wit is educated insolence.” I’m not looking for abuse, per se, but cleverness and concise expression of insight. When I asked for suggestions on twitter, several people pointed me to feeds of people who routinely insulted others, often crudely. A great insult may be appropriate, but it’s far from the soul of wit. Consider the examples above, and give me more like that!

P.S. And be sure to give me the link to the individual status message if you have it. I can hopefully find it via twitter search without, but that’s more work than you might think, especially if the quote isn’t exact. As I discovered finding the links above, one wrong word that you’re sure you remembered correctly can get you a seemingly mysterious “no results.”

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  • RJ

    Talk about finding needles in haystacks, most of the tweets I see every day are reasonably mundane but I don’t want to follow more people because then I’ll be drinking from the firehose too deeply.

    I’ve been keeping an eye on though to see if a more formalised approach brings in any gems – still looking. Maybe *truly* witty repartee is a thing of the past? :(

  • Kayess

    The all-time master of aphorisms is also on Twitter:

  • Chris Shiflett

    I like Slide-Driven Development, which is what many of my friends and colleagues have used to describe what @davorg refers to as Conference-Driven Development.

    Greg’s is still the best. :-)

  • Dan Thornton

    I started a blog devoted to microblogging recently, along with some friends found through Twitter, Plurk etc.

    Aside from the vapid hypothesizing about how to monetise Twitter, I’ve also been collecting regular Tweets of the Week:

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Dan –

    I particularly liked Fred Wilson’s “Earthquakes are to twitter what mojitos are to parties. They get everyone talking.”

    I follow Fred, and was here for the earthquake, so I’m not sure how I missed that one. Thanks!

    The recruiter who emailed Biz and said “I understand you used to work at twitter…” wasn’t clever; that was dumb. Although lots of us get dumb emails like that (especially from clueless PR people.)

  • Tim O'Reilly


    Great tip about Jenny Holzer. All she does is aphorisms, and many of them are terrific! Definitely following her now!

  • Richard Walker

    @johncleese I’m sure the design for your “avatoir” is lovely; the problem is we were hoping for a nice “manga apartment block”!

    Jared says he’s not dead and is worth 100 million. Lira.

    Speaking of puppets, let’s not forget that the sockpuppet was an asset that was sold for hard cash. You’re an attractive fella!

  • Dan Philpott

    So how about browsing through for quotes? It’s a repository of funny quotes and bits of online dialog, mostly from IRC. It might be a bit hard to browse at the moment as it is in need of good hosting. But walking through some of the wit and wonders of random comedic timing there can waste many hours. Could use a twitter interface. And a host. (Do I hint overmuch?)

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Great one just now from Aral Balkan: Windows: n. – the operating system that you run in a virtual machine to test things on. (

  • moya

    @RJ as for the needle in the haystack — that’s what twitter ‘favorites’ are for, methinks.

    @calipidder sent me a nice all-time truism i hold as a reassuring gem for “those days:”

    “it is difficult being a uniter and not a divider. “

    also, i find children the ultimate source of one-line wisdom these days (not surprisingly, since my life revolves around one). three of simple-yet-effective zingers i’ve favorited:

    via @bedtime — from one of the venerable @Pistachio’s venerable @children:
    “I will go RIGHT to sleep with my face buried in your shoulder, but I have to be holding you tightly mommy. Don’t put me down.”

    and, if you’ll allow me the vanity to include my own 4-year-old daughter, on chocolate:
    “i’m chasing the chocolate around my mouth til it disappears”

    ok – and speaking of melting — one more great one-line from my daughter – the kind that makes you melt:
    “Look how pretty the trees sound. It sounds like rain.”


  • Liz

    I find as a general rule, the people with fewer followers are more clever than those with tens of thousands. They are talking to their friends, not playing to the crowd and most forced humor falls flat in my opinion (and that goes for canned wisdom). The funniest things I’ve read do not sound like inspirational headings in a self-help book, they are a bit out-of-context observations between online friends & colleagues.

    You’d be surprised how many articulate people there are on Twitter who you’ve never heard of. It is a place of discovery and I find I am learning the most from people with whom I have the least in common.

  • William

    Forgive the shameless self promotion and the fact that it’s not actually on twitter but it fits the bill. I think.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    William —

    The line on your blog:

    The Internet has pretty effectively proved that you can always find a vast array of idiots if you simply ask them to stand up.

    definitely fits the bill.

  • dilip

    hey guys,
    There is an interesting talk organized by VLAB at Stanford Business school that I am attending. The topic is Lifestreaming: The Real Time Web on Sep 16th. FriendFeed and Seesmic are going to be there on the panel. Check it out

  • elkit is a good quipper.

  • Jim Bergman

    Tim, is this the sort of thing you’re looking for?

    “conceptually, i struggle to fully comprehend why showers get dirty”

    “Thinking that happiness is an unexpected royalty check.”

    thinking that the phrase “microblogging giant” is funny

    “Has science discovered how the ability to find the optimum upwind location is acquired by smoking? The B.O. guys want to know…”

  • Alex Tolley

    “@tempo: Evolution is a sorting process that is the very antithesis of random.”

    Catchy line, but unfortunately not true.

    Which makes this famous H. L. Mencken quote appropriate:

    There is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and wrong.

  • Vasudev Ram

    This wasn’t on Twitter either, but it’s funny …

    Samuel Johnson, the English scholar of the 18th (?) century, supposedly said this to a woman – he was being witty and correcting her usage of English at the same time, about the word ‘smell’ versus ‘stink’ – see the links below:

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Jim Bergman –

    They are all candidates (keep em coming) but the last one is the best by far! And it’s you.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Ouch! Just saw this one:

    sorenmacbeth Although I understand that Al Gore’s weight gain is related to his storing Carbon Dioxide from the atmosphere in his own body.

  • Tashabouvier has witty, irreverent tweets every time.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    @karaswisher didn’t say this on twitter but it fits #epigrams: ““Being lectured on journalism ethics by Michael Arrington is like getting parenting advice from Britney Spears.”

    Quoted from Demo:

  • Tim O'Reilly

    This is probably from the “you had to be there” (at this moment in time) department, but on point nonetheless:

    @cshirky: Hey, did the LHC blow up the world? I’ve been off Twitter for a while…

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Here’s another good one, just in:

    @stevek: “CNN poll: GOP takes brunt of blame for economy.” You don’t say! Like saying, “Flames take brunt of blame for house burning.”

  • Tim O'Reilly

    This one is un-PC (apologies to Christian readers) but definitely fits in the category of twitter wit and insults:

    Your shirt says you can do all things through christ who strengthens you, but you can’t seem to run faster than me, you superstitious fuck.

    Rather in the sniping tradition of Dorothy Parker.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    @zephoria i dream of a time when Friday and Saturday night mean something other than work time with fewer email interruptions.

    (Not sure it quite qualifies, but I liked the sentiment!)

  • Tim O'Reilly

    @gruber The Tina Fey Palin sketch on SNL wasn’t so much a parody as it was a reinactment.

    OK. re-enactment, but the sentiment and phrasing fits the bill!

  • Tim O'Reilly

    @cheeky_geeky “Staff are running McCain’s campaign like a hedge fund, and running Obama’s like a balanced checking account.”

  • Matt Grommes

    Here’s some I’ve collected on my tumblog at

    @gruber “To Republicans who tell me they’re tired of me writing about politics. I say let’s call it even, I’m tired of you fucking up the country.”

    @rands “Progress that matters moves slower than you’d prefer.”

    @KathySierra “Meeting those ppl who can find almost *anything* interesting is such a treat. Their default mode: assume X is worthy of interest, learn why”

    And my favorite. Not words of wisdom but funny as hell:

    I am totally signing up for McCain’s ‘be the first to hear my VP pick’ telegraph service. (Brushing up on my morse code.)

    Wil Wheaton: retweeting @dcurtisj


    Wil Wheaton

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Microsoft’s SOA strategy embraces UML: – It’s not necrophilia if you’re both dead.


  • Thor Muller

    @Alex Tolley
    I’d argue that the line (“Evolution is a sorting process that is the very antithesis of random”) is true but not accurate. Mutation and genetic drift are random inputs, but natural selection–the core of the algorithm–is decidedly non-random.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    @alexhutton Thinking that the current financial crisis feels more and more like a “reboot”. Wake me up when we get a prompt back.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    @monkchips some people live in a near perpetual state of surprise. many of them are called pundits, analysts, or op-ed columnists. others are bloggers

    Love that one, James!

  • Tim O'Reilly

    This is the best one I’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever: Nat Torkington (@gnat): “The problem with capitalism is that for the last decade it has had its invisible hand in its pants.”

    So true, so well put. A devastating put down.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Hugh Macleod (@gapingvoid) just wrote:

    Advertising is like Medicine: Most of the money is made from people who, a generation ago, would’ve already been dead.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Chris Sacca:

    If President, I would require airport Duty Free stores to stop selling cologne and start selling deodorant.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Eventually energy & information will become indistinguishable and I’ll run my motorcycle on email.

    Jesse Robbins, in

  • Tim O'Reilly

    David Terrar (@DT) in

    “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

  • Nick Douglas

    Tim, since you seem to be checking this post every month or so, I thought I’d mention that I’m working on a book of Twitter witticisms. So far about 200 people have each given me permission to reprint up to five of their tweets.

    Twitter is involved, and I’m talking to a major publisher. So I’m very excited and I’m hoping to actually sign something in a few weeks.

    As you could guess, I was overjoyed to find this post while doing research. If you have any personal favorites of your own, or any input, I’d be glad to hear from you.

  • Tim O'Reilly

    Great one just now from @sacca:

    My inbox is like having a kid in boarding school. It bears my name, but we catch up rarely and I don’t really know what it’s up to.

  • Arianna Petrie

    Any news about A defector’s unexplainable disappearance?