La brièveté est l’âme de l’esprit.
lah bree-yev-tay ay lahm duh less-PREE. Click below to hear this.*
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Actually, there is something else I would like to say about this proverb, which I introduced yesterday.
There are two words for brevity in French: la brièveté, which refers to duration in time, and la concision, which refers to the number of words used. One could argue for either one in translating this well-known expression, since both are probably essential to witty utterances. La brièveté sounds better to my ears, however–probably because of its resemblance to the English, where the adage originated.
L’esprit can mean spirit (as in le Saint Esprit), mind (as in Il a l’esprit vif, He has a nimble mind), or wit (Elle a de l’esprit!, She is witty!). This last, of course, is our target here.
As for l’âme, it does mean soul. But that’s not necessarily the only translation possible here. We could say l’essence, or la base, or la fondation, or a number of other words. No doubt whoever first spoke this adage wanted to convey the idea that wit, l’esprit, is a live, organic thing. It is not just words on a page, nor simple cleverness. It can be rapier-sharp, travel like lightning, cut like a guillotine. Handle with care!
*Some mobile phones, such as Blackberries, won’t display the audio player. If no player appears, here’s an alternative link to the audio file: