laconic adj : brief and to the point; effectively cut short; "a crisp retort"; "a response so curt as to be almost rude"; "the laconic reply; `yes'"; "short and terse and easy to understand" [syn: crisp, curt, terse]
EtymologyFrom Laconicus < sc=polytonic. Laconia was the region surrounding and ruled by the Spartans, who were known for their brevity in speech.
using as few words as possible to communicate much information
- French: laconique
- German: lakonisch
- Hungarian: lakonikus, szűkszavú, szófukar
- Polish: lakoniczny
- Spanish: lacónico
- Swedish: lakonisk
A "laconic phrase" is a very concise or terse statement, named after Laconia (a.k.a. Lacedaemon [Greek Λακεδαίμων]), a polis of ancient Greece (and region of modern Greece) surrounding the city of Sparta proper. In common usage, Sparta referred both to Lacedaemon and Sparta. Similarly, a laconism is a figure of speech in which someone uses very few words to express an idea, keeping with the Spartan reputation for austerity.
The Spartans were especially famous for their dry wit, which we now know as "laconic humour." This can be contrasted with the "Attic salt" or "Attic wit", the refined, poignant, delicate humour of Sparta's chief rival Athens.
Spartans focused less than other Greeks on the development of education, arts, and literature. Some view this as having contributed to the characteristically blunt Laconian speech. However, Socrates for one rejected the idea that Spartans' economy with words was simply a consequence of poor literary education. Plato quotes him as saying: "... they conceal their wisdom, and pretend to be blockheads, so that they may seem to be superior only because of their prowess in battle ... This is how you may know that I am speaking the truth and that the Spartans are the best educated in philosophy and speaking: if you talk to any ordinary Spartan, he seems to be stupid, but eventually, like some expert marksman, he shoots in some brief remark that proves you to be only a child." As these comments might suggest, the Athenians were somewhat taken by the speech patterns of their country cousins, and collected choice examples of their pithy statements.
- A witticism attributed to Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Sparta, is a response to a proposal to set up a democracy there: "Begin with your own family."
- On another occasion, Lycurgus was reportedly asked the reason for the less-than-extravagant size of Sparta's sacrifices to the gods. He replied, "So that we may always have something to offer."
- On her husband Leonidas' departure for battle with the Persians at Thermopylae, Gorgo, Queen of Sparta asked what she should do. He advised her: "Marry a good man and bear good children."
- Herodotus recounted another incident that preceded the Battle of Thermopylae. The Spartan Dienekes was told the Persian archers were so numerous that when they fired their volleys, their arrows would blot out the sun. He responded with “So much the better, we'll fight in the shade”. Today Dienekes's phrase is the motto of the Greek 20th Armored Division.
- When Leonidas was in charge of guarding the narrow mountain pass at Thermopylae with just 7,000 Greek men in order to delay the invading Persian army, Xerxes offered to spare his men if they gave up their arms. Leonidas replied "Molon Labe" (Greek "Μολών Λαβέ"), which translates to "Come and take them". Today this is, among other things, the motto of the Greek 1st Army Corps.
- Leonidas asked a Spartan to take a final communication about the battle home; the man declined, saying "I came here to fight, not to act as a messenger." He made the same request of another Spartan, and received the reply: "I shall do my duty better by staying here, and in that way the news will be better."
- When asked by a woman from Attica, "Why are you Spartan women the only ones who can rule men?", Gorgo replied, "Because we are also the only ones who give birth to men." Subsequently, both Philip and Alexander would avoid Sparta entirely.
- Demetrius I of Macedon was offended when the Spartans sent his court a single envoy, and exclaimed angrily, "What! Have the Lacedaemonians sent no more than one ambassador?" The Spartan responded, "Aye, one ambassador to one king."
- After being invited to dine at a public table, the sophist Hecataeus was criticized for failing to utter a single word during the entire meal. Archidamidas answered in his defense, "He who knows how to speak, knows also when."
- The king of Pontus engaged a Spartan cook to prepare their famous black broth for him, but found it distasteful. The cook explained, "To relish this dish, one must first bathe in the Eurotas."
- After the execution of Lucius Sergius Catiline and his fellow conspirators, Cicero announced "Vixerunt" - "they have lived."
- After defeating King Pharnaces II of Pontus in the Battle of Zela in 47 BC, Julius Caesar memorialized his swift victory with the words "Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered").
- According to a legend recorded in the Primary Chronicle for year 6472, Sviatoslav I of Kiev (circa 962–972 AD) sent a message to the Vyatich rulers, consisting of a single phrase: "I come at you!" (Old East Slavic: "Иду на вы!" Idu na vi!). The chronicler may have wished to contrast Sviatoslav's open declaration of war to stealthy tactics employed by many other early medieval conquerors. This phrase is used in modern Russian to denote an unequivocal declaration of one's intentions.
- In Njál's saga, Thorgrim and a few other grudge-bearing men were scouting around Gunnar Hámundarson's house. Gunnar woke up and stabbed Thorgrim through a gap with an atgeir (a type of spear). Thorgrim returned to his comrades, who asked if Gunnar was home. "Find that out for yourselves, but this I am sure of, that his atgeir is at home," he said, and fell down dead.
- After the humiliation of his envoys in 1219, Genghis Khan's response to the Shah of the Khwarezmid Empire was "You have chosen war."
- During a visit to France, Benjamin Franklin was approached by a Frenchwoman who noted that he had put on weight, pinching his belly and saying, "Benjamin, what would you say if that was on a woman?" Notorious for his amatory endeavors, Franklin quickly replied, "Madam, twenty minutes ago that was on a woman."
- When asked to surrender the Imperial Guard during the Battle of Waterloo, General Cambronne is recorded as replying: La Garde meurt, elle ne se rend pas - "The Guard dies, it does not surrender". Some sources also record his response as the single word Merde (shit).
- During the early 19th century struggle for central Arabia between the families of Al Rashid and Al Saud, Shaykh Abdul Aziz Al Rashid wrote to King Abdul Aziz Al Saud suggesting that rather than having their armies battle, the two leaders should settle the matter through single combat. The King replied with a one-line letter "From Abdul Aziz the living to Abdul Aziz the dead."
- In 1809, during the second siege of Saragossa, the French demanded the city's surrender with the message "Peace and Surrender" ("Paz y capitulación"). General Palafox's reply was "War and knife" ("Guerra y cuchillo").
- In 1843, British forces led by General Charles Napier conquered the province of Sindh in India. On his conquest he was supposed to have sent a one word message in Latin to his commander, Peccavi, meaning "I have sinned" ("I have Sindh"), making it not only a laconic phrase, but also a bilingual pun. In fact this message was suggested by Punch at the time, since Napier had been acting against orders.
- During the era of westward expansion in the United States of America a group of thieves, bandits and outlaws began terrorizing a small community in the state of Texas, killing several citizens. The townsmen quickly requested help from the Texas Rangers. When Ranger Pat Dooling arrived, the townsmen could not believe that only one man had been sent. In response to their question about the arrival of other Rangers, Dooling famously responded "You've only got one riot, haven't you?"
- On October 27, 1917, violinist Mischa Elman and pianist Leopold Godowsky listened in Carnegie Hall as sixteen-year-old violin prodigy Jascha Heifetz gave his first U.S. performance. At intermission, Elman wiped his brow and remarked "It's awfully hot in here", to which Godowsky retorted, “Not for pianists.”
- On October 28, 1918 the Austrian-Hungarian ruler Charles I of Austria tried to persuade the Slovene leader Anton Korošec not to join an independent Yugoslav State by offering him to establish an autonomous United Slovenia within the Habsburg Monarchy. Korošec replied in German: Es ist zu spät, Majestät ("It is too late, your Majesty") and then, according to his own account, slowly left the room. The State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs was declared the next day with Korošec as its de facto leader.
- American President Calvin Coolidge had a reputation in private of being a man of few words and was nicknamed "Silent Cal." A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dorothy Parker, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, "Mr. Coolidge, I've made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you." His reply: "You lose."
- Nobel Prize-winning British physicist Paul Dirac was notoriously taciturn. During the question period after a lecture he gave at the University of Toronto, a member of the audience remarked that he hadn't understood part of a derivation. There followed a long and increasingly awkward silence. When the host finally prodded him to respond, Dirac simply said, "That was a statement, not a question."
- During World War II when Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas refused Axis demands for occupation of Greek territory under threat of war, he was supposed to have replied with a single word - Οχι (Ochi)- "No." The anniversary of his refusal is today celebrated as Oxi Day. In fact, his response was in French - Alors, c'est la guerre - "it is war, then".
- During the Battle of the Bulge General Anthony McAuliffe, acting commander of the 101st Airborne, refused to surrender to the German forces with a note on which he wrote one word: "NUTS!"
- In the Korean War, after U.N. forces under American command were attacked by Chinese forces in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, U.S. commander Chesty Puller made the remark, "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things." He also reportedly said, "All right, they're on our left, they're on our right, they're in front of us, they're behind us...they can't get away this time", and "Great. Now we can shoot at those bastards from every direction." In the same battle, Major General Oliver P. Smith was widely quoted as saying, "Retreat? Hell, we're attacking in a different direction!", but that is apparently an abbreviation of his actual explanation.
- During the French estrangement from NATO, Charles de Gaulle demanded that all American troops leave French soil. Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have responded, "Does that include the ones [buried] at Omaha Beach?"
References and Notes
laconic in German: Lakonisch
laconic in Spanish: Laconismo
laconic in Polish: Lakonizm
laconic in Portuguese: Laconismo
laconic in Russian: Лаконичность
Spartan, abbreviated, abridged, aposiopestic, brief, brusque, clipped, close, close-tongued, closemouthed, compact, compendious, compressed, concise, condensed, contracted, crisp, curt, cut, docked, dumb, economical of words, elliptic, epigrammatic, gnomic, indisposed to talk, mum, mute, pithy, pointed, pruned, quiet, reserved, sententious, short, short and sweet, shortened, silent, snug, sparing of words, speechless, succinct, summary, synopsized, taciturn, terse, tight, tight-lipped, to the point, tongue-tied, truncated, unloquacious, untalkative, word-bound, wordless