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What does 'brevity is the soul of wit' mean?

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March 07, 2014 6:51PM

Brevity is the Soul of Wit

The proverb 'brevity is the soul of wit' means that articulate and intelligent communication (speech and writing) should use few and wisely chosen words. It is associated with the play 'Hamlet,' by William Shakespeare.

In Shakespeare's day, 'wit' principally referred to intelligence, and the essence or soul of being intelligent is to convey your thoughts as briefly and efficiently as possible. Here is the context of the line:

LORD POLONIUS

This business is well ended.

My liege, and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief: your noble son is mad:

Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,

What is't but to be nothing else but mad?

But let that go.

(The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Act 2, scene 2.)

It should also be noted that this phrase is very ironic in the context of the play, as Polonius is anything but brief in his long speeches.